Vida en el Valle: California's budget battle

January 16, 2013

California's budget battle

Vida en el Valle

SACRAMENTO Students and parents worried about additional tuition hikes and slashes K-12 schools can finally take a breath of fresh air.

Last Monday, Gov. Jerry Brown assured Californians that the state's 2013-14 budget will involve investments -- not cuts -- to both K-12 and higher education. The new shift in direction and priority for the governor came as he outlined details of the 2013-2014 budget at a press conference Monday at the state Capitol.

Brown presented a budget that "lives within the peoples means," and was made to "avoid a fiscal mess" using a "common sense approach." He also promised the budget will remain fiscally balanced in the future.

"We are going to do our best to maintain a solid budget. We want to avoid the boom, bust, borrow and spend type of budget that treats the economy like a yo-yo because that didn't work, it hasn't been working and it will no longer work," Brown said at a news conference.

The turnaround from previous budget plans, which were heavy in cuts, was due to Proposition 30, which voters approved in November. The measure raises the state sales tax from 7.25 percent to 7.5 percent and increases income taxes for high earners making more than $250,000 for the next seven years.

Brown wants to give school districts and administrators more flexibility on how to use those additional funds.

"I believe that decisions regarding education need to be made closer to the classroom. Let the problems faced by schools be solved closer to where they exist," said Brown.

The state spent $56.6 billion on education in 2008. Since then, the funds have dipped to a low of $47.3 billion in 2011-12. Proposition 30 funds will be used to increase education funding to $66.4 billion -- or 40 percent extra -- by 2016-17.

The governor's plan to give school districts more flexibility with spending could become controversial with legislators.

"Forty percent of students across our state come from low-income families, and over 20 percent do not speak English as their first language or don't speak English fluently. Our future depends on these children," said Brown. "For far too long we have been disproportionately given money to schools that really don't need it while others are in great need. This budget will allocate more money to those schools that need more resources."

Legislators in the education committees welcomed the news.

"This is very positive news for our communities. These funds will greatly benefit English-Language learners who need the most help to get ahead and have been generally overlooked in years past and I think overall, Gov. Brown recognizes that there are school districts who suffered during this recession and they need more help," said state Sen. Lou Correa, D-Santa Ana.

Correa said most K-12 schools that have suffered the most during the recession have high Latino enrollments.

"There are some schools in certain areas of Los Ángeles, the Central Valley and Orange County who have an enrollment of over 70 percent Latino students," said Corea. "These young Latinos are our future and if they are already starting behind in school districts that don't have the resources to help them get ahead, they are already at a disadvantage and already behind before they begin."

Corea added that "the strength of our economy will be measured by the Latino students who can obtain a solid education and be guaranteed a spot in college. Their success is our success."

Brown said funding for schools has historically been "disproportionately given to school districts," leaving some to struggle.

"We need to recognize that people are in different situations as are schools. This budget is fair and it's right. It's a call to justice by treating those who have been treated unfairly or unequal, more equal," said Brown.

The allocation of funds will be based on a revised formula that will look at several factors like the percentage of residents who are low-income or disadvantaged, the number of free and reduced-price meals, and the number of English-language learners.

Latino Legislative Caucus chairman Ricardo Lara believes Latino students stand to benefit the most from this revised formula.

"This funding will help our most vulnerable students who need extra help in order to succeed. These funds are especially important for students who are already at a disadvantage if they are attending public schools that don't have the resources to prepare them well for college," said Lara, a Democratic Assemblymember from Los Ángeles.

The budget also designates $25.8 billion for higher education, a $1.3 billion increase from 2012-13.

Since 2007, tuition and fees have increased by $5,556, or 84 percent, at the University of California system and by $2,700, or 97 percent, at the California State University system. Brown said there should be no additional tuition increases, but Lara believes there is no guarantee.

"The UC Regents have become a sort of thorn. Even though the budget states there won't be tuition increases, we really don't know because the regents act independently and make their own decisions regarding tuition and fees," said Lara. "My hope is that there will no longer be tuition hikes."

The major negative in the new budget are further cuts to CalWorks, which will impact low-income, poor and struggling families.

"I am most worried about single moms who are having a really difficult time during this recession. This is a big negative for our community and all of us in the Latino Caucus will do our best to ensure that the budget is no balanced on the backs of poor people who are trying their best to contribute to society. We are just making it harder for them," said Lara.

Assemblymember Susan Bonilla, D-Concord, is worried the Child Care and Development funds -- which will decrease by $9.8 million -- will make it more difficult for those who are trying to stay afloat.

"Subsidized child care is usually given to the extremely low income families that are trying to make a positive transition from welfare to work and I am worried that single mothers with 1-2 children who are working at a minimum wage job, covering their housing and food, their childcare costs will be exacerbated and that is very worrisome," said Bonilla.

Still, Lara and Bonilla say they are committed to working with the governor to ensure further cuts to Cal WORKS or child care are not made.

"It is something we are going to have to wrestle with and have many discussions before we can make decisions that will make a huge impact on a vulnerable population. I am sure we will figure something out," said Bonilla.