Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Sacramento: Don't cut school budgets

By Frank D. Russo

The steps on all four sides of the State Capitol in Sacramento got a lot of attention yesterday. Citizens from across the state held back to back rallies on matters pertaining to the California budget, education, social services, juvenile incarceration, and pesticide spraying for moths.

But the biggest of the day was a bit unusual—over 40 Superintendents of Public Instruction from Los Angeles County and 100 statewide joined parents, teachers, and school kids to deliver a message to the legislature and the Governor to not balance the California state budget by cutting education. Think the state budget is a boring topic—or that it’s all about numbers? You should have heard these education experts, charged with the responsibility to make it all work, talk passionately about their mission. More than one of these leaders from Los Angeles County told the crowd about how they had struggled and improved schools that had failing our kids—some to the point that they now receive statewide recognition—and how they will not allow this to go down the drain with what one called “sine wave budgeting.”

Darlene Robles, Superintendent of the Los Angeles County Office of Education started her remarks noting that “It’s not often that we see Superintendents coming forward.” She then gave some startling figures about California in comparison with other states:

“When we compare out school system to those across the country, we have 30% fewer teachers in our classrooms…. We have 50% less school administrators than school districts across the country and 80% less counselors.”

She continued, “That’s shameful, when were the 8th largest economy in the world.” Referring to California’s level of funding based on the cost of living, she said, “To be 46th is just not acceptable.”

Robles concluded: “all of us know that there isn’t a legislator across this state that did not run on the platform that they would support public education. And it’s not only supporting public education during the good times—it’s supporting public education during the tough times. That’s when character counts.”

By the time Jack O’Connell, California’s state Superintendent of Public Instruction, made his way through the crowd to speak, he was greeted with thunderous applause and a warm hug. He fired up the crowd, telling them what they already knew—but his words were clearly destined for those in legislative session inside the building and to Governor Schwarzenegger, who was in Fairfield, delivering a speech on carpenter apprenticeship programs. He charged the Governor with an “abdication of one’s responsibility to set values and priorities” in proposing a 10% across the board set of budget cuts and characterized the $4.8 billion of cuts to education as a “hostile suspension of Prop 98,” noting that the voters in passing that measure had supported educational funding and had confirmed that priority 3 years ago—a reference to their rejection of a ballot measure in Schwarzenegger’s special election of 2005 that would have weakened it.

O’Connell was just one of the speakers who tied education to our future, our economy as a state, to reductions in imprisonment and crime, and to moral values. He said: “If you want to invest in the future, you invest in public education. If you want to shortchange the future, then you shortchange education. The cuts being proposed would be devastating to education. It would be a great step backwards.”

He directly challenged the Governor and Republicans on the framing of this issue: “We don’t have a spending problem. Our problem is with our priorities. When you hear people say we have a spending problem, you tell them we have a values problem. We have a problem with or priorities. That is why we need to make sure that the public policy document for the state of California is one that invests in the future.”

O’Connell then explained the numbers in another way: “The governor’s budget proposes $800 less per student. Look at that in terms of a classroom. You’re looking at about $25,000 taken out of every single classroom in the state of California. Your average elementary school—take away $400,000. Your average middle school, its about $1 million, and your typical high sized high school its about $2 million less in terms of services they can really provide. I can guarantee you our class sizes will be dramatically increased. We’ll have fewer classes available. Fewer career technical education classes. Fewer counselors.”
He also skewered Schwarzenegger and others for lofty rhetoric that did not match their actions, in closing with these lines” “You’ve heard of No Child Left Behind? This budget leaves all of our children behind. Correct me if I’m wrong, but this was supposed to be the ‘Year of Education.’”

Folks are starting to show up on the steps to the Capitol. And they are going inside to demand action, in this case armed with petitions they asked legislators to sign, promising not to balance the budget on the backs of our kids in school.

Before the budget is passed, my bet is that there will be a lot of other folks making the trip to Sacramento. Some of these legislators will not be as far from those who elected them in their districts as they usually are beyond these steps where the budget is voted on.

Posted on March 11, 2008
California Progress Report
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