School Beat: Arnold Strikes Again

by Lisa Schiff on May 20, 2010

Governor Schwarzenegger submitted his revised budget May 14th and the only good thing about it is that it’s his last one. The “Governator” has made one final effort to destroy as many social programs as possible including public education where he is cutting the K-12 budget anywhere from just under $900 million to $1.5 billion, depending on who’s counting. And even with higher education, although he technically kept his bizarre pledge to increase funding for this sector, he did so at the cost of increased student fees, which can only reduce the overall effect.

The California Budget Project (CBP) has provided an immediate “quick and dirty” analysis of the Governor’s proposal, which they are updating regularly. This offers an overview of each area of the cuts, how they compare to the January budget, if and how conditions have changed, an assessment of assumptions embedded in both budgets, and a clear statement of how the cuts will affect programs.

Although it’s a bit out of date by a few months, the CBP also has an excellent presentation describing the background to the state’s budget crisis. This provides snapshot views of a huge range of useful information, including: the unsurprising but nonetheless depressing forecast that budget gaps will persist for the next several years; descriptions of how the state’s revenue sources have changed and dropped; trend data looking at unemployment rates, buying power, and poverty rates; and how California’s investment in schools over time compares to that of other states.

Throughout the entire span of his time in Sacramento, Schwarzenegger has seemed intent on both raiding public education funding and weakening the security of that funding. This revised budget continues in that same vein, even using some of the same trickery. For instance, the very first paragraph of the introduction to the budget summary claims that the Governor is “fully funding the Proposition 98 guarantee.”

But as in the past, Schwarzenegger has once again gone after Proposition 98 funding, which provides guaranteed levels of support for K-14 public education. Both the full budget report (p. 53) and the CBP report (p. 6) detail how he is using technicalities to push the level of funding downward and is attempting to recalibrate the minimum guaranteed level.

In addition to that basic underfunding, cuts to class reduction funding continue, COLAs (cost of living adjustments) are lower, and restrictions on the use of most categorical funds (funds that are meant to be spent on specific programs) are relaxed or suspended. A notable exception to the new flexibility on categorical programs is the continuance of the high-priced high school exit exam. Coming in at a cost of just under $7 million, and given that the exam is of questionable value, this seems like an obvious place to find some savings. Willingness to maintain this exam at the expense of providing better classroom experiences is further evidence of just how entrenched we are in the high-stakes testing paradigm.

While K-12 was spared the fate of other social programs, such as state-supported childcare that the Governor proposes eliminating entirely, this budget is devastating nonetheless. The Legislative Analyst’s Office report on the May revision does not offer much hope either. For instance the LAO recommends suspending Proposition 98 guarantees for the 2009-2010 fiscal year (and possibly 2010-2011 as well), making targeted cuts such as reducing physical education at community colleges and offering the high school exit exam fewer times, and then making across the board cuts.

The LAO only refers to revenue generation strategies in very general ways, such as mildly positing that the state could reverse recent corporate tax reductions. This seems to exactly the kind of solution that we should be looking at, but given that the LAO can label an entire section of its report “How Much Education Spending Can the State Afford?” and not ask in parallel how the state can afford tax breaks to corporations and wealthy individuals, we are in serious trouble. According to the CBP background report (slide 35) “Corporate income taxes have declined over time as a share of corporate profits. If corporations had paid the same share of their profits in corporate taxes in 2007 as they did in 1981, collections would have been $8.3 billion higher.” How is this acceptable, especially when such serious cuts are being made to the most vulnerable people and most essential services?

It remains to be seen what the legislators will do with this budget. At the February 25th Funding Our Future Town Hall, State Senator Leland Yee practically pledged not to approve any budget that included cuts to education. Well, now is the time to see if he and others can stick to that ideal. The structural and political impediments that have prevented elected officials from addressing the underlying problem of increasing revenue levels are at the very core of the problem. California needs to relinquish its status as the only state requiring a 2/3 majority to pass budgets and revenue measures if we are to get on with the tasks of pulling corporate loopholes out of Proposition 13 and revising how our tax burden is distributed.

This is the only way to ensure that there is any hope of providing the services our state’s residents need, like quality public education. There is simply no way around it.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children in the San Francisco Unified School District and is a member of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco and the PTA and is a board member at the national level of Parents for Public Schools.

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