he crisis in public education is now at the alarming stage. If we do nothing, school funding inadequacies risk crippling our state educational system to an unbearable degree.
The broken promise of our governor to fund schools at the level prescribed by law, combined with elements of No Child Left Behind that eat away at confidence in our schools, are taking us down an extremely detrimental path. It is a path paved by those who favor school vouchers and the privatization of education.
This has been whispered about for years. It is unbelievable when you first consider letting the school system fall apart with negative propaganda and reduced funding, declaring it a failure and taking the "public" out of "public education." Of course, California would still be required to have public schools, but who would go there? You know the answer. We can not allow this to happen.
One wonders how things have gotten to this stage. Where is the outrage? Outrage would be everywhere if school funding were slashed to bare bones in a single incident. Picture this. If all of a sudden schools had no custodial services, no bus transportation, no student support programs, no crossing guards, no nurses, no libraries, no paper, no lunches, no books, people would be outraged. However, cut a tolerable amount year after year, and people just put up with it.
Do you know how bad it is? California spends less on our students than at least 45 other states. This is incredible. The Golden State! Land of Opportunity. The ultimate destination of "California Dreamin'." If we were a country we would have the world's fifth largest economy, yet we barely compete with Alabama and Mississippi in terms of school funding! And most amazing but true, these comparisons are based on data from before the current school year during which Proposition 98 funding requirements were suspended, triggering further reductions to our schools! This will get much worse unless we take action now.
In January, I wrote "Send that Budget to the Back of the Class!" Since then I have been working with a coalition of educators in this county to challenge these funding reductions. We meet with local legislators to discuss our concerns about the future of our public schools. Word from Sacramento is that the school budget outlook is "grim."
We are advised, do not stop pushing for the schools. Spread the word about school funding throughout the state. Remind people that before 1978, California schools were the envy of the nation. In 1978 we spent $600 more per student than the national average. We had excellent schools and we funded them well. Beginning in 1979, school funding began a decline that has never stopped. We dipped to below the national average in 1982. By 2002 we hit $1,100 below the national average per student!
These statistics come from charts prepared by the US Department of Education. More recent statistics are not yet available, but we know that major budget cuts began two years ago in California. Locally, the first drastic cuts led to furlough days and bus fees that were in effect last year. These have caused major sacrifices on the part of students, families and school staff.
Just this week our outstanding adult education program was threatened with similar cuts. In this case, the cuts are from the federal government. The problem of educational funding is not unique to California. Our entire country's public education system is at risk.
Meanwhile, with all of these funding inadequacies, we have No Child Left Behind, which has created a testing-target system that leads to the declaration of "failure," even as heroic teachers bring about steady, real progress with students.
Last week when several local school districts were being dubbed failures, I overheard teachers talking in the hallways during break. I heard it said how incredibly unjust it is to call our schools failures. Just look at the work that is going on in the classrooms.
During break, some teachers show anxiety about the budget. But when the bell rings and the students look to their teachers, they do not see hand wringing or hear complaints. Teachers don't have time to despair. They have standards to meet and children to teach. Their energy is focused on that task when school is in session.
What can be done? We can turn this around. Write your legislators. Tell your friends and relatives. If you value public education, please join the cause to rescue it. I for one am willing to speak up on behalf of public education and I am willing to pay for better schools. I believe most people in California are willing to do this too. Join me in Sacramento. A rally is in the works for May 25th.
Sandra Nichols is a trustee and past president of the Pajaro Valley Unified School District Governing Board serving 19,700 students in Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties. She is a Speech and Language Specialist with the Santa Cruz City School District, and a former commissioner 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