Educating 6 million kids is not only the largest single piece of the state budget, but its most popular one which explains why it always drives the Capitol's annual budget ritual.
The school finance picture is even cloudier than usual this year. It's the focal point of a contentious debate over raising taxes, and the Legislature is struggling with Gov. Jerry Brown's proposals to overhaul how school money is distributed.
The Education Coalition, an amalgam of school unions, school boards, school administrators and parental groups, is at the center of the turbulence.
The coalition has fragmented on the three major tax measures, all of which purport to bolster school finances.
The California Teachers Association is backing Brown's sales and income tax hike, but the California Federation of Teachers is supporting a "millionaires' tax." The state PTA is backing attorney Molly Munger's broad income tax hike for schools.
But the coalition reassembled this week to demand "some form of revenue enhancement" for schools.
It's opposing Brown's plans to make multibillion-dollar cuts in schools should his tax measure be rejected, and to reconfigure distribution of school funds by reducing "categorical aids" and giving more money to low-performing schools.
Until the state repays $10 billion-plus already owed to schools and they have more liquidity, the Education Coalition told legislators they should not reduce aid to some schools to increase it for others.
To add more uncertainty to the picture, Brown and the Legislature's budget analyst are billions of dollars apart on how much money the state's current tax system will produce, and how much the governor's plan would generate if approved by voters.
The bottom line is that school officials have absolutely no idea how much money they will be getting from the state over the next 16 months as they begin writing their own 2012-13 budgets. Most school districts appear to be taking a worst-case-scenario approach and in that vein are sending preliminary layoff notices to untold thousands of teachers and other employees this week.
They have until late May to either enforce or rescind those notices, but are unlikely to have any firmer grip on the school finance situation by then because it's highly unlikely that the Legislature will produce a budget until after the June 5 primary election.
Even then, legislators will be guessing on whether voters will approve new taxes for schools in November. Brown wants "trigger" cuts should voters reject his taxes, including a $4 billion-plus hit on schools. But the Education Coalition and other school groups oppose such targeting.
It's a fine mess, and stands as another example of how dysfunctional the Capitol has become.