By Bob Wells, Kevin Gordon and Dick Hamilton
Among the various public and private interest groups who concern themselves with policy-making in the state’s Capitol, education has long been envied for having a special place in the constitution that establishes its importance among all issues. Several provisions of the state constitution relate to the priority of public education, and yet school leaders often find themselves fighting with political officials and competing interests who would prefer to ignore, circumvent, manipulate or outright repeal some of the critical assurances.
The Stanford University-led study “Getting Down to Facts” that was released in March addressed the adequacy of school funding in California, among other issues. The Association of California School Administrators, the California School Boards Association and other education groups have been closely examining how they might further the effort to increase statewide public school investment and capitalize on the findings of the adequacy research.
Some suggest the pursuit of another ballot measure that would restore broader revenue-raising authority to schools through the constitution. It is indeed an urgent matter: The anemic level of support for schools must change if we are to have the resources to raise student achievement and meet the world-class standards we have set. At the same time, we must recognize that we have to be ever-vigilant in aggressively protecting and asserting the constitutional provisions that already provide for education.
The incredibly devastating implications of Proposition 76, had it passed during the 2005 special election, cannot be overstated. In addition to completely gutting Proposition 98 and setting schools on a course of long-term disinvestment, most folks didn’t notice a little provision tacked onto the end of the measure that would have cleverly eliminated the right of schools to be reimbursed for state mandates.
The impressive and unified effort of the entire education community, including parents, teachers, classified personnel, administrators and school boards, made the difference in defeating the attack on basic school funding. The seemingly relentless effort to undermine school mandate funding is a battle we are finally beginning to win, despite an occasional setback. This issue, which often takes a back seat to the focus on protecting Proposition 98, has not been lost by ACSA and CSBA, who have led the education community in fighting back.
When Gov. Schwarzenegger convened budget negotiations with the Education Coalition in 2003, agreement was reached on a list of priorities for funding when new dollars became available. While COLA and enrollment growth topped the list, ACSA and CSBA, joined by other education leaders, insisted that mandate obligations be placed next in line, before discretionary spending by the administration and the Legislature.
As the so-called “deal” progressed from abandonment by the governor to resurrection by the voters, litigation, and finally renegotiation last year, policy-makers in Sacramento have been reminded of the importance of honoring the constitutional commitment to mandate funding.
Only a year ago, many predicted that the reimbursement-starved education community might have to agree to pennies on the dollar of the nearly $1 billion of mandate backlog funding in exchange for reforms to the mandate process that would diminish reimbursements over time.
Furthering the pessimism about prospects for full reimbursement, punitive audits by the state controller’s office resulted in the disallowance of a huge percentage of mandate claims over plainly ridiculous requirements. The constitutional right of school agencies to see their funding was strongly asserted in the Capitol in Sacramento by both ACSA and CSBA, along with other education leaders.
Sacramento got the message on paying the backlog. Without giving up a single penny, schools were allocated the backlog in funding, clearing out what the legislative analyst had dubbed the “education credit card.”
Hard work ahead
And the battles continue. Litigation brought by CSBA’s Education Legal Alliance and the Education Mandated Cost Network on key issues related to mandate reimbursement have been crucial in demonstrating that the education community is prepared to fight back. In January, CSBA’s attorneys argued an impressive and successful case before the Superior Court in Sacramento to strike unconstitutional actions by the Legislature, contained in AB 138 of 2005, that seriously undermined mandate reimbursement for schools and local governments. The litigation brought by the EMCN and supported by CSBA’s Alliance challenges the punitive audits by the controller’s office. The new State Controller John Chiang has set out to resolve the contentious audit issues as a top priority.
When the budget proposal for 2007-08 again lacked ongoing funding for mandate reimbursement, it became clear that the education community must remind lawmakers and the governor that running up the credit card does not make sense, particularly after the progress made last year.
There is still some optimism that the administration and Legislature may support meaningful mandate reform, distinct from disguised attempts to shortchange school agencies on mandate reimbursement obligations. Currently, the three-year audit window on mandate reimbursement claims doesn’t even begin until the mandate is paid.
The chronic delays by the state in paying school agencies for mandates caused a corresponding delay in the start of audits, by many years in some cases, which compromises the integrity of records. A change in the law to have the three-year audit window begin when claims are initially filed would be an important and meaningful reform.
In addition, local agencies shouldn’t have to wait several years from the enactment of legislation that requires new mandates to the determination of test claims that confirm that a mandate actually exists. In most cases it is clear the day the bill is signed, and shouldn’t require more than 12 months to make the finding. A number of other ideas can make the process more expeditious and the rules for compliance more clear.
Mandate reimbursement was a very important result of Proposition 4, a statewide ballot measure that helped constrain the passage of legislation that would force local agencies to take on greater obligations without the funding to pay for it. The Proposition 4 language added to the constitution properly requires the state to reimburse schools and local governments for mandates that require new costs.
As we look for new solutions to school funding in the future, we must always be mindful that securing constitutional priority is not enough. The education community must sustain an ongoing effort to enforce the constitutional provisions that benefit schools and the students we serve, and fight attempts to take public school investment backward.
Bob Wells is executive director of the Association of California School Administrators. Kevin Gordon is president of School Innovations & Advocacy. Dick Hamilton is associate general counsel and director, Education Legal Alliance, California School Boards Association.