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A school-funds feud, and why it matters

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One hesitates to use prize-fight metaphors to describe education. But the situation here in California - recognized as a leader in the nation's education-reform movement - fits the analogy. In one corner, Republican Gov. George Deukmejian. Back in January, his proposed budget allowed only a modest cost-of-living increase for public elementary and secondary schools. Pleading lack of resources, he also noted that new money had already been poured into schools - without much proof of results.

In the other corner, the head of the state's education department, Superintendent Bill Honig. Learning of the budget, he blasted the governor for offering the schools a paltry $124 million - instead of the $1 billion he said was needed just for basic operating costs in a system that is growing by 100,000 students each year.

The governor was not pleased. He branded the superintendent - who in California is not appointed by the governor but elected independently - an ``incompetent whiner.'' The superintendent shot back with a densely printed 12-page bulletin, thick with statistics, to prove that the reforms prompted by a 1983 education reform bill were indeed working.

So the governor, in a weekend radio speech several weeks ago, responded that the state needed a ``thorough'' review of public-school management - to be sure that funds were being ``spent wisely and not wasted.'' Mr. Honig accused him of ``school bashing'' and of carrying on a ``personal vendetta.'' (Footnote: it is widely rumored that Honig is gearing up for a Democratic run for governor in 1990, a rumor the superintendent denies.)

Then, on May 19, the tiff took another turn. Governor Deukmejian announced that the state's unexpectedly rosy economy would produce an additional $2.7 billion in tax revenues over the next 14 months. His plan: Give a bit more to the schools, but return a hefty $700 million to the state's 16 million taxpayers in the form of a rebate averaging about $42 per person. His reasoning: The people of California in 1979 had ``wisely'' voted the spending limits of Proposition 4, under which he was compelled to hand back the rebate.

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