More School Cuts In Budget

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Lillian Camilgio

Gov. Jerry Brown's new budget proposal is getting attention because of the choice it poses on education: voters must either raise taxes by nearly $7 billion a year in November, or billions in cuts to school may be triggered.

But the budget has other education policy changes tucked into it.

Most notably, Brown proposes to phase out most so-called "categorical" programs -- with funds tied to certained mandated duties or outcomes. (The exceptions Brown doesn't touch include special education and others that are either federally funded or have some special legal standing that makes them too hard to change).

In its place, Brown proposes a change in the notoriously complicated formula for allocating funding for school districts; in general, the new formula would be simpler and would award more money to districts with more poor students, and less to those with fewer poor students. (The blog Educated Guess has a good explanation of how the new formula would work here).

This is mostly good news for many school districts, which would have more power over how they spend money.

But there are likely to be political and policy objections to all of this. The media and teachers' unions are already focusing on the fact that this plan would eliminate the popular class-size reduction programs.

Class-size reduction was begun 15 years ago with the goal, at least in the lower grades, of limiting the number of students in each class to 20.

Brown also seeks to postpone, in the name of budget savings, a new "transitional" kindergarten to provide an additional year of kindergarten for children who are a few months too young for kindergarten.

There are policy arguments, as well as budget arguments, for both changes.

Education researchers have found that class-size reduction has little impact on student achievement. And the transitional kindergarten program is new and unproven.

For Brown and his budget, the danger is that eliminating high profile school programs may raise public doubts about whether the governor is a champion of schools.

That perception of the governor is crucial if he is to convince voters to support his tax-hike initiative, which is being sold as an effort to save education from more cuts.

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