School Beat: Schools Need the Special Election

by Lisa Schiff on February 17, 2011

California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) just did our state’s public schools the biggest favor or paved the way for a new level of austerity. In a move that will hopefully shock the legislature and the electorate, the LAO responded to a request by San Francisco’s own State Senator Mark Leno to provide a set of “illustrative” cuts to enact should Governor Brown’s proposal to extend current taxes fail. Needless to say, the proposal isn’t pretty.

The LAO report, published on the Sacramento Bee’s website, is notable not only for the targeted deep cuts it suggests, but for the qualifying language introducing the possibilities. Clearly, identifying reductions totaling the $13.5 billion that would take the place of tax revenue was an uncomfortable task. Stated in their own words:

“While we have recommended in recent years some variation of many of the alternatives provided in this letter, we have had to go far beyond our normal comfort level in order to meet the requested solutions target. Some of the listed actions would have serious impacts on individuals, programs, and local governments. As such, our alternatives described below should be view as an illustration of the types of solutions that would be needed given your scenario.” (LAO Report, p.2)

Since education is the largest element of expenditures, it gets the biggest hit, spread across K-12, the State University system and the University of California. The CSUs and UC together would face a $1.1 billion blow. While the headlines regarding the salaries and bonuses for UC executives make it hard to mount an effective financial defense for UC, those cuts in both systems are going to come at the direct and indirect expense of students. Fewer classes, maybe fewer campuses, tuition increases, reduced library collections and services are realistically some of what we would be facing in this new scenario. Some universities around the country are taking even more draconian – and destructive – measures by closing down entire departments, notably in areas that don’t make money for their parent institution.

Out of the entire education block, K-12 suffers the most in this proposal with a little over $4.6 billion in cuts all told, including a suspension of Prop 98 funding levels, the Quality Education Investment Act (which gave extra money to struggling schools), and other various cuts. K-12 would also suffer indirectly, since the $1 million plus proposed cuts to health and social services will directly and negatively affect poor and low-income children, who are also public school students.

As a meager palliative, the LAO report offers suggested ways that school districts could accommodate themselves to this new fiscal reality. Larger class sizes for K-3 students is identified as the biggest financial winner, but also increasing the age of Kindergarten eligibility by several months, and at the state level, eliminating state funding for transportation.

As discomfiting as these possibilities seem, the most unnerving part of the LAO report comes in the forward looking part of the report, where the suggestion is made that these cuts could, and possibly should, be made permanent:

The majority of the budget-balancing options described in this letter could be enacted as permanent solutions, thereby helping the state to address its stubborn out-year budget problem.” (LAO Report, p. 7)

None of the “budget-balancing options” mentioned by the LAO are good options for our schools or our children. Ultimately, that means that these are not good options for any of us, regardless of whether we have children or if they are in public schools right now.

The LAO report makes what’s at stake for our public education system even clearer than it’s ever been. Without the extension of the existing set of temporary taxes, our schools will once again be footing the bill –potentially for the foreseeable future – for tax loopholes for corporations and wealthy individuals. This is the same power struggle we’ve been grappling with for years, in part because of California’s outrageous super-majority requirement for passing any revenue related measures. Though the budget now only needs a simple majority to be passed, the second half of that fiscal management equation remains unaddressed. A one-third minority continues to hold our state hostage, not just in the legislature, but in the ballot box too.

It turns out that lobbying our friends, neighbors and co-workers to vote for the tax extension won’t be enough – we need to lobby for the privilege of even doing so. The tax extension vote itself requires a 2/3 majority to get on the ballot, and right now, there are some legislative hold-outs, calling in to question whether or not those in the electorate inspired enough to vote will even have that chance.

Super-majority or no, California’s parents will not be shut out. The parent-initiated group Educate Our State has jumped on this first hurdle and has started a “Let Us Vote” campaign. Public education supporters – really supporters of all social services provided by the state – can go to the website and send online letters to their elected officials advocating for the tax extension to be put on the ballot. Assuming this effort is successful, a new round of work will have to start immediately – convincing voters that continuing with the taxes we are already paying is a smart – and essential – investment in our future.

This endless cycle of battling for a smaller and smaller pile of crumbs each year is exhausting and keeps us fighting the wrong battle. We need to make this situation more personal for those who have control over the size of the resources available to all of California – it’s time the “no taxes” component of the state Assembly and Senate understood, specifically, what their stance means to our schools and our kids.

Schools around the state should take a bit of time to identify whether their Assemblyperson and Senator are among those who have taken the no-tax pledge. If so, they should issue a personal, then public, invitation to participate in one of their school’s budget planning meetings for next year, and ask those elected officials to come help decide what will be cut and which students needs will trump others. School communities have been bridging these budget gaps for too long, shielding certain lawmakers from the realities of their decisions. They need to feel this pain too and meet us face-to-face as they tell us what they are going to take away from our kids next.

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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