Few people realize it. But this is California’s Year of Education.

The phrase “year of education” has been somewhat discredited. Gov. Schwarzenegger initially had promised that 2008 would be the “year of education,” following up on 2007 as the “year of health care” and 2005 as “the year of reform.” But the budget turned so sour that he dropped the idea of doing more for education and education funding last year. Politically, that wasn’t a terrible idea. After all, his year of health care didn’t produce the major health care reform he wanted. And 2005? The less said about that, the better.

So what makes this California’s year of education? The special election ballot.

You wouldn’t know that from following the public debate about the election. Props 1A through 1E are being discussed, praised and criticized as if they were fundamentally about the budget. But in this state, half the budget involves education. The effects of passing – or not passing – each of these measures likely will fall harder on education than anything else.

Prop 1A is a rain day fund and spending limit, but it also would preserve and protect the state’s minimum education funding guarantee. And 1A is linked to 1B, the measure that is entirely about education. (If 1A doesn’t pass, 1B can’t take effect even if it wins). This measure, which can only be approved if Prop 1A passes as well, puts education at the front of the line for moneys from a new rainy day fund, guaranteeing the restoration of $9 billion of the current budget damage to education. One problem: the money doesn’t begin to be paid until 2011 (conveniently, after the current administration is out of office).

1C, while about modernizing the lottery against future revenues, also has a critical education component. It guarantees that the admittedly paltry level of funding that schools currently get from the lottery will be made up from other state funding. (The real question about 1C, from a budget perspective, is whether those guarantees will cost the state more money than what the state can bring in from securitizing the lottery).

1D and 1E, on their face, would seem to be about health. Each proposes to tap voter-approved revenues for health programs for the general fund. That helps education.

With education funding at the heart of these measures, the public debate should be around education. Should education remain the top priority of the state? Should education be exempt from some of the budget pain? Does education receive enough funding? Is there a better way to structure how we fund schools?

It says here that we need more education funding, and we need that money focused on student achievement. Before you conservatives out there howl about waste and high teacher salaries, you might talk to the reformers who are opening charter schools in this state and across the country. Like you, they’re not fans of teachers’ unions and school boards and educational bureaucrats.

But in recent months, I’ve heard the charter school operators Steve Barr of Green Dot and Mike Feinberg of KIPP (full disclosure: my father recently wrote a book about KIPP) explain in painful detail how the per-pupil funding in other states where they have schools is far more generous than that of California. Feinberg, during a recent forum in LA, said that KIPP schools in other states make do with the level of per-pupil funding provided by the state. But that’s impossible in California, he said, because the funding here is so much lower.

“You all should be ashamed of yourselves,” Feinberg said.

It’s simply impossible to separate a debate on the budget from a debate about education. And the education debate is the one that voters will care about. With the public slow to engage on the ballot measures, it’s time for reporters and campaigns to explain the high stakes for education in this election.