SACRAMENTO — Responding to criticism from educators and teachers unions, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger unveiled television ads Thursday pushing his plan for merit pay and denouncing claims that his budget cuts education spending.

The California Republican Party-funded ads feature Schwarzenegger and teachers touting his 2005-06 budget proposal — which would increase education spending by $2.9 billion to $50 billion — and promoting his proposed constitutional amendment to pay teachers based on performance rather than seniority.

GOP officials declined to disclose the cost of the campaign but said it was a "major, seven-figure" buy that would run as long as necessary."The unions have unlimited resources to spread untruths about what the governor is trying to do," party spokeswoman Karen Hanretty said. "We're fighting back, and we intend to fight until the day of the special election."

On Monday, the California Teachers Association unveiled a $2.5 million ad campaign that slams Schwarzenegger for failing to fully fund the Proposition 98 education guarantee in his budget — something he promised to do last year when he secured union support for his plan to reduce education spending in the current budget.

The Schwarzenegger administration said the state's fiscal condition forced the governor to choose between cutting children's health care or spending a few billion dollars more on schools. The Education Coalition — a group of teachers and school administrators led by the CTA — says Schwarzenegger is making excuses.

"(The ad) shows the governor and his supporters understand their position is pretty weak in terms of education funding," said coalition spokesman Roger Salazar. "He is trying to divert attention from the fact that he has no serious solution to the problem of education under-funding."

In one of the spots, an East Bay teacher disputes the assertions in the CTA ads.

"I'm disappointed when I hear the teachers union's claim that Governor Schwarzenegger is cutting education funding. ... It's simply not true," says Shana Simmons, a teacher at American Indian Public Charter School in Oakland.

Schwarzenegger campaigned Thursday in Burbank for the 600,000 signatures he needs to place his overhaul measures on a special November ballot. In addition to merit pay for public school teachers, he wants to revamp budgeting, public employee pensions and how legislative and congressional districts are drawn.

His signature campaign is meant as a backstop to legislative resistance, as his proposed constitutional amendments can be placed on the ballot by a two-thirds vote of the Legislature or signed petitions. The governor is supporting two initiatives to revamp how teachers are paid, in case legislators reject his merit pay plan.

One of those initiatives would lengthen the time it takes for teachers to achieve tenure; the other would mandate teachers be paid according to student performance.

"Equally important is that the governor wants to reform the system — pay high-quality teachers more," Melissa Mori, a teacher at Sacramento High School, says in the ad.