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Calif.'s Brown Again Pitches Tax Hike to Avoid K-12 Cuts

California Gov. Jerry Brown, whose state has teetered through continual budget crises in recent years and made major cuts to schools, is again pitching temporary tax hikes as a way to avoid making even deeper reductions in education.

The governor, a Democrat, used his annual State of the State address Wednesday to promote a plan to raise taxes temporarily on the wealthy and on sales through a public vote in November.

Republican state lawmakers in 2011 stymied Brown's efforts to place a series of tax increases and extensions on the ballot. This year's plan would put tax decisions directly in the hands of California voters.

If the ballot measure is not approved, Brown said the state will have no alternative but to pare $5 billion from the budget for the coming year—much of it from K-12. California faces an estimated budget shortfall of $9 billion, after closing a much larger fiscal gap, of $26 billion, last year.

Brown told lawmakers that a combination of tax hikes and spending cuts to the overall budget would help put California's schools on sturdier ground, financially. "Neither is popular, but both must be done," he said. His argued that his proposal for new taxes is both "fair" and "temporary."

The governor also touted his recent proposals to overhaul California's school funding and testing systems. Brown is calling for replacing the state's current funding system with a "weighted student formula" that provides a basic level of funding with additional money flowing to disadvantaged students and English-language learners.

"This will give more authority to local school districts to fashion the kind of programs they see their students need," he told lawmakers, according to a transcript of the speech. "It will also create transparency, reduce bureaucracy and simplify complex funding streams."

Brown also said the state's testing system eats up too much class time and is too slow to provide schools information that can inform instruction. He said he wants to cut the number of tests and "get the results to teachers, principals and superintendents in weeks, not months." He also called for a "qualitative system of assessments," such as a "site visitation program where each classroom is visited, observed and evaluated," and said he will work with the state's board of education to develop such a plan.

The governor took a couple of jabs at backers of various, unnamed education policy proposals, who he said were overly eager to stamp one kind of rigid plan or another on his state's massive, and diverse K-12 system.

"Since everyone goes to school, everyone thinks they know something about education and in a sense they do," Brown said. "But that doesn't stop experts and academics and foundation consultants from offering their ideas—usually labeled reform, and regularly changing at ten year intervals—on how to get kids learning more and better. ... In a state with six million students, 300,000 teachers, deep economic divisions, and a hundred different languages, some humility is called for."

Brown was elected in 2010, returning to an office he held for two earlier terms, from 1975 to 1983. He inherited a $26 billion budget shortfall. He and state lawmakers eventually approved an $86 billion state budget that cut state spending by 6 percent. Funding for K-12 was kept relatively level, but lawmakers were counting on revenue projections that did not occur. The new reality has in turn left open the possibility of triggering $2 billion in spending cuts in areas of government, including schools, state officials said late last year.

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