School Beat: No Holiday Joy for Schools

by Lisa Schiff on December 16, 2010

The holidays will bring no welcome surprises for public education this year. With the economy still in reverse-gear and priorities shifting from the public to private, funding and commitment for schools continue to slip away at the highest levels of power. Elected leaders and limelight seekers simultaneously warn us about further cuts and use that weakened foundation as stepping stones for their own political ambitions.

Anti-hero Michelle Rhee, the former Washington D.C. chancellor of schools who resigned in the midst of electoral fallout has now liberated herself from political, bureaucratic and legal confines. With her new organization Students First, Rhee is attempting to take her brand of top-down, statistically defined education nation-wide. No doubt some will join her, but Rhee’s record in D.C. is similar to Duncan’s in Chicago – not the success the media loved to make it. Instead we saw narrowing curricula, privatization, and putting almost all hopes on a highly controlled, standardized conception of both teaching and learning.

These approaches don’t make the types of “whole-child” schools we envision – and need – for our kids. Still, with the persistent financial crisis Rhee’s unrelenting confidence and odd star power will have an appeal. In California, where we are diving closer and closer to the bottom of any kind of education metric, such puffery may sound better than the “tighten your belts” rhetoric the public school community is repeatedly treated to by the state.

With the change in guard, these admonishments are now coming from our Governor-elect. Foreshadowing the near future, Jerry Brown, California’s seasoned though yet-to-be inaugurated repeat Governor revealed some scary thinking earlier this week at a budget forum in UCLA focused on education. According to a report by the Los Angeles Times, he warned educators and families that the state’s financial situation was worse than he thought. Accordingly, in his view the public education sector, as the largest single area of state spending, must prepare for more cuts in the immediate future.

The not-yet-cynical among us might wonder what happened to Brown’s surprisingly thoughtful and forward looking education platform that was part of his recent campaign. Such individuals might also ask how further cuts will enable progress towards any one of the points mentioned in it, including things like teacher-student ration, per-pupil funding, and returning California to the top of the list in terms of education quality.

Reportedly Brown’s strategy is to create an opening to hold special elections with revenue generating measures on the ballot. Despite many clear options for funds, increasing revenue was something Schwarzenegger actively avoided – so this is a welcome change. But this is a risky and unacceptable gamble to take with our children.

If Schwarzenegger treated schools like an ATM machine, Brown seems to be starting off by using them as poker chips. Those familiar with our schools know there is nothing extra in classrooms to eliminate in order to support a longer term tactical move. Relatively simple options are few and far between. Eliminating the high school exit exam is one, since it offers little of meaning to students, but because of its political weight, its status seems safe despite calls for cuts.

Not only are there no more cuts to be had, but the necessary financial and bureaucratic restructuring that should occur will take time and can’t be accomplished in such a rapid time frame. The two recent studies from the Public Policy Institute of California (“School Finance Reform” and “Pathways for School Finance”) are just the latest in reasonable proposals for moving forward on sufficient and efficient public school funding, but it seems as though no one in Sacramento is paying attention.

Parents certainly are and have joined in on not one, but two lawsuits for adequate and simplified funding. More parents are also coming together to generate increased political pressure, as in the new collaboration between lobbying/advocacy groups Educate Our State and Support CA Kids. Hopefully we will see more parent groups joining together this way in order to create an even more powerful political block to not just defend, but advance our public schools.

Yes, these are hard economic times, but choices are being made every day about where to put ever more precious public dollars. All too often these days, the decision has been made to put that money back into the pockets of the wealthiest individuals among us, those who need it less and who will not put it back into circulation. The Grinch is here, no doubt about it, but this time his Dr. Seussian transformation is at best uncertain.

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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