School Beat: Message to the Governor—Hands Off School Funding!

by Lisa Schiff on March 6, 2008

Schools cannot be used to bridge the budget gap. Not now, not ever. What ought to be an obvious truth is apparently too subtle for Governor Schwarzenegger to grasp. Despite the defeat of his past efforts to raid school funds, it seems that public education supporters should never have let up on this one simple message—and to make sure we can’t stop at the Governor’s mansion.

It’s never been clearer than now that our representatives need a stronger push to stand up for schools (and other public necessities) and turn the debate around from budget slashing to enhancing the revenue streams into public coffers. If dire cuts are on the table, then reasonable taxes, closing loopholes for wealthy individuals, and eliminating giveaways to corporations need to be as well.

In the midst of local, state and federal frenzied financial panics, reframing the conversation is difficult but necessary. The numbers are scary, it’s true, and that is precisely why the examination of revenue is required. As of February 20th, the Legislative Analysis Office (LAO) announced that the deficit is likely to be even higher than the estimate from the Governor’s office, bringing the total gap to about $16 billion.

While the LAO anticipates a bleaker budget year, their proposal to address the problem is somewhat more palatable than the Governor’s (), but only slightly. Most significantly, instead of making across the board cuts for services, it targets cuts, attempting to eliminate programs that are according to some standard, not performing, and it begins to look at some revenue enhancement strategies.

However, it still calls for cuts within education, although less severe than what Schwarzenegger proposed — including maintaining Proposition 98 at minimum levels, not funding cost-of living adjustments (COLAs), and suspending the Quality Education Invest Act, which was designed to support schools serving a high percentage of low-income, minority and English language learner populations. Interestingly, releasing funds from categorical spending constraints is also highlighted as a strategy within the LAO alternative budget, as a way to give local administrators more to work with in meeting basic prioritized needs in their districts.

What does this mean for San Francisco? A lot. About $40 million was the estimate provided to a joint committee between the school district and the city. To provide a mental image of just how disastrous that cut would be, consider that that amount was compared to laying off over 500 teachers or increasing class sizes for 4th through 12th graders to 61 students.

The Board of Education (BOE) has passed a powerful resolution passionately detailing just how outrageous the Governor’s proposal is. And in a refreshing change from past years, the school district’s own website has a fantastic page with links to resources for the community to use in contacting elected officials about the budget and in organizing opposition to this proposal.

Schwarzenegger’s assessments and proposals offer clear evidence of just how far he’s gone in abdicating his responsibility to serve all of the people of California in favor of satisfying the wealthy. His assessment and proposals are all available online for careful scrutiny, something every voter should attempt to do. Calls to recall Schwarzenegger have recently appeared in the pages of BeyondChron, and after reading the details of the Governor’s “solution” to our state’s current financial situation, mounting a recall campaign feels like it might be the only reasonable step.

Not only is Schwarzenegger calling for ruinous cuts to our essential services and vulnerable populations, but he is also attempting to sneak in the same power grab over the budget that he failed to pass in the 2005 special elections with Proposition 76. In a scary rewind to the recent past, the Governor is pushing his “Budget Stabilization Act”, which just like Proposition 76 aims to give what amounts to total control over the budget without legislative oversight. Under this act, if the Governor feels that there is likely to be a deficit of 1% or less, he or she would be authorized to impose emergency budget cuts.

The arguments against this have remained unchanged since 2005, namely that “likely” is a too ambiguous a condition to be a sufficient trigger for emergency measures, a 1% decline is too low of a threshold, and eliminating legislative checks-and-balances in fiscal decision-making is unacceptable when there are really no emergency conditions requiring it. Imagine what would happen to funding for education, health care, services for the poor, transportation and more under this Governor if he were given such powers.

Such slash and strangle approaches continue be advanced with some success by the Governor’s clever framing of the problem. In a deft tactical move, he constantly works to generate public consensus in the belief that spending is out of control. He accomplishes this by using the authority of his position and asserting that it is so and also by using misleading representations of costs.

For instance, on his website for the budget proposal he provides a table comparing expenditures from 1998 to expenditures today. This could be a reasonable approach except for the fact that it isn’t taking into account the changing value of the dollar over time (as the cost of living rises, the purchasing power of one dollar falls), and the fact that our population has also increased over those ten years, both in number and complexity. So we are left without a true sense of whether and by how much costs have changed.

But the most egregious strategy is to always avoid the issue of taxes and methods for increasing revenues. Schwarzenegger has insisted that he will not raise taxes, an approach which is clearly leading the state down a perilous financial path and jeopardizing essential services. These actions are not beneficial for the majority of Californians, and so can only be interpreted as an effort to keep wealth in the hands of those who are benefiting the most—wealthy individuals and corporations who are enjoying tax loopholes, tax breaks and the like.

A recent example is preposterous enough to be taken for a sick joke; if only that were true.

Soon after the Governor announced his intentions to cut education funding and cost-of-living increases for the poor, a measure to ensure that sales taxes on yacht sales were received was killed by the legislature, meaning about $1 million this year and about $25 million next year have just vanished. In other words, protecting the wallets of yacht owners is sacrosanct, but making sure that each child can have an up-to-date textbook in math or history class is asking for too much. Next we know, the Governor will demand that we feed children not more than one thin bowl of gruel for their school lunch.

Uncovering such loopholes is really where the solution to the budget crisis should start, but there are other measures that can be taken as well. In particular, legislators and the Governor could reintroduce the Vehicle License Fee (VLF), that infamous revenue source responsible in part for Gray Davis’ plummet in popularity that opened the door for a successful recall. When the LAO evaluated the fiscal impact of eliminating the VLF back in 2003, they estimate the loss to be about $6.5 billion dollars, which comes to most half of the Governor’s projected losses and over one-third of the LAO’s estimates.

In 2000, the LAO reported that the average VLF charge was $60 per car per year. This minimal amount of “pain” seems far more equitable and tolerable than the insidious budget cuts that are the VLF’s alternative. But of course the most important piece to address is reform of Proposition 13, which has had a devastating impact on our schools. Ideas have been on the table for quite some time regarding ways to adjust Proposition 13 so that the elderly homeowners whom it was supposedly designed to protect still are protected, but that the corporations (who receive so many taxes breaks and incentives of so many sorts any way) have to start paying up.

What is certain, however, is that it will take a tremendous outcry on the part of the public to stop these cuts and turn the discussion to increasing our revenues as opposed to decreasing our basic expenditures. Organizing and attending events such as the rally at the state building organized by UESF (the teachers’ union) is essential right now as our visibility needs to be ramped up. Sample letters, phone scripts, contact information for elected officials and other organizing ideas are all available for people to look at on websites for the PTA, the SFUSD, and community organizations like Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco and Protect Our Students.

We can use these resources to send letters from our school communities, to incorporate postcard writing and phone banking anytime there are parent meetings, and to develop new strategies for more emphatically communicating with our state representatives that we must work together to protect our schools. It’s time to draw a line in the sand across which the Governor can’t step, but beyond which we will certainly stride.

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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