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California schools abusing Prop. 28 education funding, proposition author says

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(The Center Square) – Proposition 28 was passed by voters in 2022 to divert approximately $1 billion in education funding each year towards supplementing existing arts funding and hiring new arts teachers, but that may not be happening.

Austin Beutner Prop. 28 author and former superintendent Los Angeles Unified School District — the largest school district in the state — alleges schools are instead using Prop. 28 funding on existing programs, thus freeing up resources to use elsewhere.

“It has come to our attention … that some school districts in California are willfully violating the law by using the new funds provided by Prop 28 to replace existing spending for arts education at schools,” wrote Beutner and a coalition including the state’s teachers’ unions. “The practical effect of this will be to significantly reduce the additional, annual investment of approximately $1 billion for arts education approved by voters. Instead of hiring about 15,000 additional teachers and aides, the funds would instead be used to pay for existing programs.”

Prop. 28 was approved by 65% of voters. Before the proposition’s passage, approximately one in five California public schools had a full-time arts or music teacher. Notably, not even the California Republican Party opposed the measure.

While no formal opposition emerged to Prop. 28, Lance Christensen, California Policy Center Vice President of Government Affairs and then-candidate for State Superintendent who lost in the general election, opposed the measure and said during 2022 that it was clear schools would abuse and shift the proposition’s funding, a position he repeated in an interview with The Center Square.

“I find it interesting [Beutner] didn’t see this coming after being superintendent of the largest school district in California,” Christensen said. “The legislature will always play games with money, especially when they have budget shortfalls, and Proposition 28 is not different. And I think the bigger challenge they have to reconcile over the next few years is if these budget problems persist, you have to fire a bunch of Proposition 98 teachers but keep the Proposition 28 teachers — that’s going to cause a lot of problems within the school districts.”

The proposition required schools to use the allocated Prop 98. money to “primarily hire new arts staff.” Prop. 98, passed in 1988, created minimum funding levels for K-14 and comes from a combination of property taxes and state general fund revenue — typical Prop. 98 funding comes out to approximately $100 billion per year and is projected to be $110 billion in the 2024-2025 fiscal year. Due to declines in state revenue, Prop. 98 funding is expected to drop significantly over earlier projections.

Prop. 28 required funding for arts and music education to be at least 1% of the funding received by schools the prior year via Prop. 98, and thus was an act to allocate existing funding, not create new funding. With schools facing budget pressures from declining attendance — Prop. 98 funding is predicated on average attendance, and the gap between students enrolled and average attendance is growing — districts could be seeking to plug financial holes from combined declines in average attendance and Prop. 98 overall funding by shifting Prop. 28 funding to cover not just existing arts programs, but general operations overall.

As a remedy, Beutner and the union coalition suggest, “If any school district is found to have violated the law by improperly using Prop 28 funds, they should be required to return the amount to the state within 30 days. The returned funds can be provided to other school districts which are in compliance with the law.”

Given the letter’s support from some of the state’s largest unions — including the California Teachers Association, the Service Employees International Union, and the Teamsters — and the fact that 2024 is an election year, the governor, state superintendent, and legislature will feel pressure to take action.

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