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Proposed Tax Hike No Longer Mollifies California Ed. Groups

The importance of a November ballot initiative to raise taxes in California and earmark much of that money for school funding grew dramatically after news this week that the state's budget deficit has grown to nearly $16 billion.

When Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, announced a dramatic spike in the budget deficit on May 14, he continued to press for protecting K-12 and higher education funding even in light of the much gloomier fiscal numbers.

But education advocacy groups still worry about education spending and expressed concern that even the high-stakes November initiative would not be enough to solve serious fiscal problems for schools.

Brown's revised budget actually includes a 16 percent hike in K-12 spending, on the assumption that the ballot initiative will pass.

In January, Brown had projected a $9.2 billion budget deficit for the rest of fiscal 2012 and fiscal 2013. However, lower-than-expected tax revenues so far this year for the state resulted in the budget shortfall growing by $6.5 billion to $15.7 billion.

In response, Brown announced in his revised budget that he would slash state spending by $8.3 billion to help close the new, larger deficit. However, Brown stressed in a May 14 statement that he would continue to push for protecting K-12 spending.

"We can't balance the budget with cuts alone; that would just further undermine our public schools," Brown said.

The ballot initiative pushed by Brown would raise the income tax by a quarter-cent, while taxes would increase on those earning $250,000 or more annually.

If the November ballot initiative does not pass, an automatic round of about $6 billion in cuts to public schools will go into effect at the start of next year.

But in a May 14 statement, California Federation of Teachers President Joshua Pechthalt, representing more than 100,000 teachers in the American Federation of Teachers affiliate, argued that even a successful ballot initiative in November should only be part of any solution to funding problems with education, as well as other government services.

"These cuts are disastrous for working families, and as important as it is to pass a revenue measure in the fall, it doesn't let the legislature off the hook to find more
revenue now," Pechthalt said.

Brown's proposed funding increase for schools, paid for by the November initiative, also doesn't help districts that have to set their budgets in June regardless of whether voters approve the tax increase, argued Education Trust—West, an education policy research group based in Oakland.

"This strategy will likely lead to additional staff layoffs and cuts in support services. It will also allow districts to slash a total of 15 additional school days, leaving California with the shortest school year in the nation," the group said in a statement.

Michelle Rhee, founder and chief executive officer of Sacramento-based StudentsFirst, praised Brown's efforts not to cut education spending further. But she also took the opportunity in a statement to argue that the state's seniority-based layoff system for teachers was hurting schools.

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