ith the governor's special election behind us, the education community breathes a sigh of relief. Whew! That was a close one.
We managed to stave off the destructive initiatives that could have sent our California schools plummeting from 44th to 50th place in the national rankings of per-pupil spending. And we sent the man a strong message, "We want good public schools here, and we will do our darndest to have them!"
Voters said, "No way, Mr. Schwarzenegger!" You can not dictate draconian teacher-tenure requirements, called for in Prop 74. You can not force upon us, the service workers of California, a mountain of red tape to silence our voices as Prop 75 would have done. And you can not wreak havoc on public school funding as planned with your Prop 76.
As a teacher, a public school advocate and a union member, I say, "Thank you, California." Thanks for not sleeping at the wheel. And you voted in support of the common good, not in your own self-interest. Bravo!
Here we are in late 2005, no worse off than we were before the election. A lot of work went into simply treading water in terms of school funding. Our school budgets have been spared further immediate jeopardy. Let's take stock.
I recently viewed the PBS documentary on California schools, "First to Worst." The title says it all, exposing the degradation of our schools resulting from a quarter-century of decline in per-pupil school funding. The debate about school funding can not end with our defeat of Prop 76.
You know where inadequate school funding leads us? The documentary shows broken drinking fountains, filthy restrooms, and decrepit buildings. It does not show the trampled dreams of thousands of students whose school careers are impacted by poorly funded schools. It does not show the crime, violence, drug and alcohol addiction and wasted lives that stem from communities being unwilling or unable to serve their people with fantastic schools.
Recently, news articles have surfaced about increased school dropouts, suspensions and expulsions. This is not coincidental. Schools must have a "hook," that special something that students look forward to in their day. Some kids are eager to study trigonometry, U.S. History, or poetry. But there have always been and there always will be students who only look forward to art, music, woodshop, auto shop, fieldtrips or special events.
It is these non-mandatory offerings that help motivate students, especially struggling ones, and keep them coming to school. When schools are inadequately funded and at the same time are required to meet ever-higher achievement targets, as required under No Child Left Behind, these so-called "extras" go away.
The pressure on schools to concentrate all efforts on making every student proficient in certain academic subjects at arbitrary, federally defined levels is not conducive to continuing to provide the extras. This kills the desire to learn in some students.
On top of this, the California High School Exit Exam looms on the horizon for at-risk students. This is the year that CAHSEE comes into effect. For the first time students will not graduate unless they pass this test. Granted, we must do our best to make sure students are prepared for this test, but we must do more to provide educational alternatives so that every student has a real chance to succeed.
In recent years, Californians have demonstrated their desire to fund their schools better. These efforts included Prop 98, the lottery contributions, and the Williams lawsuit. None of these steps has been effective. As a recent California School Boards Association newsletter declared, these efforts "failed to produce any meaningful reform that would pull state funding for public education out of the downward spiral that began in the late l970s."
What happened in the late '70s? Proposition 13 the taxpayer revolt. That was the turning point at which our schools ceased being superior models for the country. This is not a coincidence, either. What can we do?
One idea is to retain the Prop 13 tax relief for homeowners only. There's no need for multi-billion-dollar corporations to get that same tax relief. This is a similar phenomenon to oil company executives getting filthy rich while the price of gas skyrockets. It is the opposite of social justice.
Will adequate school funding assure us great schools? No. But inadequate funding will assure a failure to meet the needs of all students entering through our public school doors.
Sandra Nichols is a Speech and Language Specialist for Santa Cruz City Schools, the Coordinator of Special Education for Spreckels Union School District in Monterey County and a School Board Trustee for the Pajaro Valley Unified School District. Her opinions are not necessarily those of any school district or of this publication.
© Sandra Nichols 2005