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Democrats, education leaders haggle over federal education funds

August 18, 2010 | 12:07 pm

The federal government recently handed $1.2 billion to California schools to help save teacher jobs, but there are growing concerns the money could instead become yet another bargaining chip to reduce the deficit in the state’s ongoing budget battle.

California is in a unique position as the only state in the nation still without a budget in place. While the federal money is meant to supplement the already-set education spending in other states, the level of California’s schools spending remains in flux. As a result, the infusion of federal money could replace – rather than augment – state spending.

Education groups are outraged. The leader of the state Senate, Sen. Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), inflamed those fears when he suggested this week the money could help address California’s estimated $19.1-billion deficit.

Top schools leaders huddled with Steinberg and Assembly Speaker John A. Perez (D-Los Angeles) on Tuesday to express their concerns.

“This is not their money, this is federal money dedicated to restoring jobs in schools and improving education for students,” said Robin Swanson, a spokeswoman for the 2.5 million-member Education Coalition, which includes teachers, parents and other school officials. “This isn’t a piggy bank for lawmakers to raid.”

In their latest budget plan, Steinberg and Perez have proposed suspending California’s constitutional formulas that guarantee school funding. That would give them the flexibility to set a funding level for schools at whatever level they wish.

Thus, lawmakers could “back out” $1.2 billion from whatever number they decide schools need, knowing the federal money is coming.

Nathan Barankin, a Steinberg spokesman, cautioned such guesswork about budget details was  a “fool’s errand” and “putting the cart before the horse.” He noted that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s May budget proposal funded schools billions below what Democrats have proposed and the added that federal money can only help save teacher jobs.

Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear said the issue had not yet arisen in budget talks, but it “could be what we end up discussing.”

Such talk has drawn the attention of U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, one of the biggest boosters of the federal schools money. Boxer issued a terse statement on Tuesday  reiterating, “This funding can only be used to save education jobs that serve our children in public schools – and nothing else.”

Zachary Coile, Boxer’s communications director, said her statement was inspired by “press reports” about how the money might be used and was intended “in case there was any confusion about what the funding could be used for.”

The reality of budgeting tends to be more fluid.

Education groups fear the added federal money for schools will invariably be taken into account by state officials as they seek to break a budget impasse that has dragged into the eighth week of the fiscal year.

 Swanson hopes it won’t. “They’re playing a shell game with our children’s education by doing that,” she said.

-- Shane Goldmacher in Sacramento