Educators not the culprits in California budget

 Email Sandra Nichols

  "The governor will soon try to convince you that Prop 76 will be 'good for California.' He will say that schools are receiving $10,000 per pupil, but let's be armed with the truth."


n a recent editorial Dan Walters, of the Sacramento Bee, threw the book at educators, blaming them for much of what is ill about our public schools. Let's consider Mr. Walters' views in terms of whether we, the people of California, are ruining our schools by trying to run them on the cheap for so many years. If this is what we are doing, we should at least stop blaming individual schools, teachers, boards and administrators for doing the best they can with inadequate funding.

The history of California school funding has a sacred cow that most property owners do not wish to discuss. That sacred cow is Proposition 13, the "tax payer revolt" of 1978. Led by anti-tax guru Howard Jarvis, property owners in California have saved big bucks on their taxes. Now, nobody wants senior citizens to be taxed out of their homes, but this law gave the same tax relief to all property owners. The more property you have, the more you save — year after year — on property taxes, even if you are a multi-billion-dollar corporation!

Prior to Prop 13, California schools were the envy of the nation. A chart comparing average per-pupil spending over the years shows that prior to Prop 13, California schools were funded at a level between $200 and $600 above the national average. No wonder we had great schools. We were paying for them!

Just one year after Prop 13, as property taxes fell, schools began to suffer. In the years that followed, our schools became less and less competitive with schools across the nation. By 1983, our per-pupil funding fell below the national average. It continued to plummet though a minimum funding level was established by Prop 98 in 1988. US Dept of Education statistics show that California per-pupil spending fell to $1,100 below the national average by 2001. That was before the California budget crisis!

In the upcoming election, voters will decide whether or not to wreak even more havoc on our public schools. It's time to decide, folks, whether or not you want good public schools, because if Mr. Schwarzenegger has his way, he will be given a free reign to chop school funding at his own whim. Proposition 76 would eliminate our meager funding guarantee that is currently in place.

Clearly our schools are woefully under-funded, based on comparing our funding with what other school districts get across the nation. When you walk our local campuses, you do not see the suffering. You see our local bond projects supporting many improvements. You see our local educator-heroes making the best of limited funds. And you see the faces of children who love their schools, never having experienced the schools of the '50s and '60s, with music and art programs galore, field trips, and summer school fun.

The governor will soon try to convince you that Prop 76 will be "good for California." He will say that schools are receiving $10,000 per pupil, but let's be armed with the truth. The figure $10,000 includes local bond projects, cake sales, donations, and does not represent what local schools get. In fact some districts get more while others get much less.

In wealthy communities property taxes generate plenty of money to fund the local schools. The state kicks in even more on top of that. None of our local school districts are wealthy enough to benefit from this system! The result is that in districts like Carmel, Pacific Grove and Palo Alto, kids get about twice what our kids get in school funding. With about 60 of these wealthy districts in California, average per-pupil spending is artificially elevated.

All other districts receive approximately $5,000 per student. The inequity between well-funded and under-funded districts is as huge as the growing gap between the wealthy and the impoverished living in these same communities. The system runs contrary to any concept of public schools as providing an equal opportunity to all. Only the state's wealthiest districts are competitive with the national funding model. All of our public schools should be funded at that level.

The longer it takes Californians to awaken to the fact that they are starving their public schools, the more devastating this situation becomes. A few bad financial years do not ruin schools. Teachers still teach; roofs still keep out the rain; books are still available. However, year after year of inadequate funding results in a system in which some schools will simply go belly up. Don't blame educators for this.

With No Child Left Behind unjustly labeling schools as failures and Prop 76 looming on the horizon, please join me in defending public education. Please speak out against Prop 76 and make sure to vote. A landslide defeat of Prop 76 will signal the governor that we want great public schools in California.

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