School Beat: Education is a Budget Target, Again

by Lisa Schiff on January 17, 2008

Governor Schwarzenegger dropped the expected bomb last week and it was just as destructive as we all feared. His proposal for addressing the anticipated state budget crises (driven by a general down-turn in the housing market and consumer consumption) draws on some familiar, almost formulaic, tired and short-sighted strategies—reduce funding of programs for the neediest residents, slash public education and treat the tax structure as sacrosanct.

If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. We’ve lived through such periods and their associated rhetoric before, most recently midway into Schwarzenegger’s replacement of Gray Davis in the recall election. Schwarzenegger’s tactic back then was to do a quick and deep raid of Proposition 98, which ensures a certain amount of funding for schools, somehow convincing a naïve group of education leaders that “lending” the state these funds actually meant they would be returned some day soon.

Of course that day never came and the Governor’s hand had to be forced by a massive challenge on the part a strong public education coalition comprised of educators, the teachers union, parent groups such as the PTA and individuals. The money came back, but at the high cost to everyone of a statewide battle. (See past School Beat columns for details on this history.)

So this most recent attack on public funding for basic necessities across our state is most certainly not new. But, the general feeling of unsettledness generated by the housing market adds an unexpected dimension. These not so background worries may make it harder to for people to pause and reflect on the many flaws in the Governor’s approach.

That approach can be taken apart from a number of different specific angles, but the most important method may be to look at the underlying assumption. The Governor’s proposal, and his general strategy in office, relies on his vociferously stated premise that spending is out of control across the state, that it exceeds revenues and needs to be brought in line with the resources we have available to distribute.

Spending what is available sounds like basic common sense and is hard to argue with, especially when there are few forums for meaningful public discussion and most of us have a limited grasp of the complex revenue and expenditure processes in our state. These are not issues that are easy to get quickly.

But even given that, the premise is weak. Using a metaphor that’s been somewhat stretched in the past but is apt here, let’s compare California’s situation to that of any typical household in the state. Ignoring the tremendous amount of credit card and other debt we’ve all grown accustomed to, in general, families must keep their costs with inline how much income is being brought home by those earning wages. When costs are too high, families cut back, which is why we’ve seen so many people leave the City for outlying areas where housing is affordable and doesn’t eat up the majority of wages.

But at some point, there isn’t anything left to cut back. We still need to buy food, have a place to sleep and manage to get to and from school and work. After cutting back, if there still isn’t enough money for basic needs, families have turned to ways to bring in more money—working a second or third job or deciding that other family members will start working.

The parallel to the state situation is that we’ve already cut back way past basic needs and are considering actions that go beyond efficiency to irresponsible damage. It’s time to admit that as much as California or any government needs to strive for efficiency, equally strong measures must be undertaken in this oh-so-wealthy state to increase our revenues. In other words, it’s time to raise taxes on wealthier individuals and corporations, and eliminate the many giveaways and loopholes that have helped these same people in the past.

There are no luxuries left to eliminate in our public services, especially not in education; in fact in education there never were any luxuries, as those who remember schools before Proposition 13 can attest. The Governor’s own commissioned study clearly pointed out that our schools were terribly under-funded given our (reasonable) expectations.

In light of the general need for an educated citizenry and workforce and of the particular need in California for a skilled labor pool to effectively meet the needs of our changing economy and society, it’s time our political leaders stopped pretending that our budget situation can remain in this state. Our expenditures may be out-of-line with our current revenues, but that’s only because we haven’t been willing to equitably share the responsibilities of supporting our social and civic infrastructure, an infrastructure we all benefit from and rely on. It’s far past the time when we made everyone contribute their fair share. That’s the responsible solution to our budget situation.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children who attend McKinley Elementary School 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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