'm getting all riled up about the state of the State. And if you have children in the public schools, work in the public schools, or live in a community with public schools, I advise you to get riled up, too.
It comes down to this. Do we believe in the public schools? Where do we stand on the very concept of having quality schools for the children of California? If you think that children's educational opportunities should be tied to the economic status of their parents, then you won't get all upset about the governor's proposals. It is merely an ache in the social justice bone.
The simplistic Schwarzenegger proposal is "cut expenditures across the board."
Let's consider that sort of budget planning. If a family's income is reduced by 30%, they can't simply hack off 30% from housing, 30% from food, and so forth. In fact, given a devastating reduction in income, one must scrutinize what is of utmost importance and what can be done without. Careful prioritizing of needs and consideration of the realistic costs of the bare necessities must precede budget changes.
Schwarzenegger's plan fails to do that. And it is not responsive to the people's declaration that schools are their top priority.
Arnold rants and raves that California spends $50 billion on kindergarten through community college education. That sounds like a ton of money, and it is. But don't forget that there is more than a ton of work to do in the California public schools! Let's put the $50 billion into perspective. We are educating more than 6 million students with that money in K-12 alone. That comes down to about $8,000 per pupil, with our local districts receiving even less. It is that "per pupil" figure that allows one to conceptualize how much is being spent on a child's public education and compare our school budget to that of other states.
The National Education Association ranked schools according to per pupil revenue, with New York and Connecticut students being the best funded at more than $12,000 per pupil. A California public school education seems cheap by comparison! In fact a recent Rand Corporation study found that California spends $600 less per student than the national average. Now, you wouldn't think that education costs less here because of the low cost-of-living, would you? Neither would I.
California schools are being forced to struggle along without enough funding. And the result is clear. According to the Rand report, California placed 48th in terms of student performance on national standardized tests. Our classes are larger than 48 other states. In this high cost-of-living state, teachers' pay is in the bottom one third of the states.
Our schools began slipping in comparison with other states in the late '70's. Recall the passage of Proposition 13 - the taxpayer revolt - in 1978. This is not a coincidence. In the '70's, Californians spent 4.5% of their personal income on our schools. That dwindled to 1.2% in the '80's.
Californians simply decided long ago that they were fed up with taxes and they weren't going to take it any more! That, my friend, has not come without a significant negative effect on our schools.
Then in 1988, voter-approved Proposition 98 created a formula that public schools must be funded at a minimum level of 40% of the state budget. Now Arnold wants to override that formula, breaking the promise he made to schools last year. Just when he's telling us to ignore politics and "trust the People!" Well Arnold, the People spoke when they passed Proposition 98. We want good schools for California's children.
The Governor belittles our schools' recent progress by complaining that for $50 billion we have "hundreds of schools that are failing." Our schools could be more competitive if we weren't trying to run them on the cheap. And even though our schools are dreadfully under-funded, a child's life in school comes down to teacher, staff and the relationship that builds between the family and the school. Thus, because of our wonderful, hardworking though underpaid school staffs and a community that supports learning, many of our students are thriving educationally.
The governor, while condescendingly acknowledging "many wonderful and caring teachers," insinuates that we also have lousy, lazy teachers who need to be expelled! He plans to reward the "good teachers" based on merit. Well, you can imagine the discussions this stimulates among teachers. "How will we be judged and by whom?"
Maybe you think our school budgets are in good hands with Arnold. After all, he knows a lot about the California schools because he experienced them first hand in the movie "Kindergarten Cop." He doesn't seem to recognize that, unlike business, teaching is a non-competitive field. Our products are not widgets. Cooperation and collaboration are standard operating procedures.
Unlike the leading man in a Hollywood movie whose actions don't really affect the cast and crew, further budget cuts will only serve to handcuff our teachers and jeopardize innocent students. It's time to cut to the chase, rewrite the script, and leave our heroes and innocent victims standing at the end of the scene.
Sandra Nichols is past president of the Pajaro Valley Unified School District Governing Board serving 19,000 students in Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties. She is a Speech and Language Specialist serving the Santa Cruz City School District, and served on the Santa Cruz County Children and Youth Commission. The opinions expressed are those of Sandra Nichols and do not necessarily represent those of any school district, print publication or web site.
© Sandra Nichols 2005