Around Sacramento's Capitol Park, where state government leaders decide the fate of our local schools, Pajaro Valley educators, parents and students laid a nearly mile-long paper chain. Each link offered a message of hope for the future of public education. Meanwhile, in one State Senator's office, we got the grimmest of news. Don't expect any last-minutes checks to help balance your budgets.
It's déjá vu all over again. We are reminded of the Governor's 2006 attack on teachers and his broken promise to fund public schools, which voters insisted upon via Proposition 98.
It was encouraging to participate in last weeks Sacramento demonstration with others in the Pajaro Valley education community. But the message we got from Senator Joe Simitian was not. In a nearly one-hour meeting in his office with teachers, PVUSD Board President Kim Turley, teachers union President Francisco Rodriquez and Santa Cruz County Superintendent of Schools Michael Watkins, the Senator was blunt. Any additional funds for education would require the assistance of eight Republicans, two in the Senate and six in the Assembly. Democrats need those votes to reach the required two-thirds majority to make a change in state spending.
When asked about the possibility of bringing back the vehicle license fees, Simitian said Republicans wouldn't touch it. When we asked about closing the Proposition 13 loophole that allows commercial property owners the same property-tax protection as elderly residential-property owners, he said, "That's a non starter."
The Senator described the difficulties in reaching a bi-partisan agreement on school funding. He said about 40 percent of legislative seats are held by Republicans, enough to block any funding measure. Roughly half of that 40 percent are hard-core conservatives who would never support new education money. The other half might but won't for fear of loosing their seats.
The message is clear: There are legislators, about 20 of them according to Simitian, more concerned about their political affiliation and their seat in the legislative chambers than their duty to serve the needs of Californians.
A look at what's happening to the public schools today must encompass local, state and national perspectives. On the national level, No Child Left Behind continues to scrutinize, find fault, and castigate schools while the bar is set at levels that are unattainable for schools that aren't heavily loaded with high-achieving kids from well-educated families. Does it need to be said that in these times of NCLB, many students will meet the targets, leaving some districts unscathed? This will not be true for diverse communities that span both the culture of affluence and the culture of poverty.
Perhaps more important is what has happened on the state level. States finance most of the cost of schools. And California, previously the provider of superior education for its childrenback in the fifties and sixtiespassed Proposition 13 in 1978. Taxpayers were advantaged to the detriment of public services, with the public schools being the biggest sacrificial lamb. Since Prop 13, our schools began their downward spiral in terms of national ranking both academically and in per-pupil funding.
For Mr. Simitian, the bottom line is the question of priorities, a question that must be addressed at every level of decision-making. "If it's not a priority, it won't get funding," he said.
The Governor's budget, featuring "across-the-board" spending cuts prioritizes nothing. The California Legislative Analyst's Office in its Feb. 20, 2008 report recommends the Legislature reject the administration's budget and prioritize spending in favor of essential services critical to the state's future.
At the local level, our priorities must be re-thought, as well. We must look more closely at where it is that learning occursin the classroom. There, the top priority should be insuring the presence of a well-trained, highly qualified teacher, one who is well paid and whose work is respected.
We need decision-makers who will prioritize society's future above their own, and when this happens, schools will be fully funded and achievement goals will be realized. It will then be recognized that public schools are the real ticket to a better future.
Sandra Nichols is a PVUSD Trustee. She and her husband Peter are both educators and writers. Their opinions are not necessarily those of any school district or this publication.
Sandra Nichols is a Speech and Language Specialist for Santa Cruz City Schools, a trustee for the Pajaro Valley Unified School District Governing Board, and ELL Project Director for Santa Cruz County Office of Education. Her husband Peter is also an educator and writer. Their opinions are not necessarily those of any school district.
© Sandra Nichols 2001 - 2008