Saturday, June 27, 2009

Fund California Schools

California's voters – both those who voted and especially those who did not – made their voices heard in the May 19 special election on Propositions 1A-1F.
Jack O'Connell, Superintendent of Public Instruction

But many politicians in Sacramento mistakenly seem convinced that the election results were a clear call from the people to focus solely on cuts to close our state's gaping budget hole. That would inflict a barrage of deep cuts in vital public services – especially education – upon which millions of Californians heavily depend.

Politicians in Sacramento missed the point.

Propositions 1A-1F contained a number of complex policy issues that failed to offer a clear policy direction to voters, leading many to be supportive of one or more parts of the package but not the entire package.

For example, while the package did include a provision to raise revenues for essential public services, it also included a spending cap that would have locked California into the position of 47th in per-pupil spending out of the 50 states – if not worse.

Californians also signaled their opposition to a cuts-only budget by soundly rejecting Propositions 1D and 1E. Californians value early childhood education programs and want to continue services to help those with mental illness. The "no" votes on 1D and 1E were, in fact, a "yes" for our children and the mentally ill.

Californians want to invest more in education, not less, and we need not look any further than the ongoing strong support for investing in public education at the local level.

The record number of Californians voting last November helped pass 91 percent of all local school bonds, 81 percent of all parcel taxes and 90 percent of all Mello-Roos districts on ballots across the state. Californians value the services they receive locally, and they know full well that education is the key to the future and a major component in our efforts to recover from this economic downturn.

But Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger clearly opted for a different path. He proposed $1.4 billion in cuts to education in June and an additional $4.2 billion in the next school year – cuts the Legislature has taken steps to approve. These cuts would be added on top of the $11.6 billion in cuts in school funding included in the budget passed last February.

The impact of this draconian plan already is being seen. The Los Angeles Unified and Sacramento City Unified school districts were forced to shut down summer school programs. The Mount Diablo Board of Education just voted to eliminate 413 teaching positions, and at Kermit McKenzie Junior High in the Guadalupe Union School District, where I recently visited, class sizes are planned to increase from 30 to 44 students.

These are just a few examples of the burdens our teachers and other school personnel will have to overcome as they help California's 6.3 million students meet our high expectations.

While state officials mark these cuts in the budget-balancing ledger, district school boards and administrators are left no choice but to slash or eliminate vital local education programs.

The Public Policy Institute of California recently released a study that found 58 percent of residents said that kindergarten through 12th-grade education is the area they most want to protect from spending cuts.
Since 2003, when the PPIC first asked this question, respondents have consistently expressed the same sentiment. The same study also found that 54 percent of residents would support a parcel tax to raise money for their schools.

The point is clear: During these turbulent economic times, Californians trust their local efforts to directly support schools.

Legislative leaders and the governor both said just a few months ago they believe the responsible way to deal with this crisis is through cuts and revenue enhancements.

As the budget negotiations shift to deal-making between the governor and the two legislative leaders from both houses, I urge the "Big 5" not to deal students out of the equation. Pass a responsible budget that protects students and empowers Californians to directly support their local schools. Our children deserve no less.
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