School Beat: Special Election Brings No Budget Relief

by Lisa Schiff on May 21, 2009

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has just burned up another chunk of change in his latest attempt at a budgetary power grab. Estimating from the cost of the recall election that started off his rein of terror in 2003, Schwarzenegger has thrown away nearly $100 million of our very scarce public resources on yesterday’s ballot exercise and the last special election in 2005, all wasted in a an effort to reduce spending on social services. Luckily, the voters of California have seen these schemes for what they really were – so each of his attempts have failed. That’s the good news …

The bad news is that our budget situation is still a mess, just like it’s been ever since Schwarzenegger took office and committed himself to the Republican “No Tax” pledge and the corollary objective of decimating essential public services. With the national economy in turmoil, our state’s financial situation is even more precarious. A disinterest in prioritizing the basic needs of most people in order to protect the increased financial accumulation of the few has led to a fiscal disaster. But it should be no surprise that our public finances are insufficient when those in charge do not believe in the need for a robust social service infrastructure.

For those of us who do believe in providing essential services, such as quality public education for all children, the questions we must begin answering are (1) how to re-establish this as a political priority across the state (in all communities including Sacramento) and (2) how can we work with elected representatives to craft a reliable, equitable revenue stream that adequately funds those priorities.

Re-prioritizing social services is challenging in tight economic times. Money spent on education, health care, etc. is visible to everyone and so becomes an easy target. What are less visible are the tax breaks, loopholes, and other subsidies that benefit wealthy individuals and large corporations. No convincing argument can be made that these giveaways should be maintained by looting the funds that support basic needs for all citizens and social services for the most vulnerable among us.

Also somehow hidden from view are the tremendous amounts of money spent on prisons, money that can be conceived as yet another subsidy for the corporations running the prison industry. It’s a tired, but well-known fact at this point, that it costs more to keep someone in prison than it does to send them to college. We’ve been investing more in punishment than in encouragement and human development for too long now; for both moral and financial reasons, it’s time to change.

One way to do this is to have a public accounting of how much is being lost in these types of loopholes and expenditures. The dollar amounts could be shocking enough to change our frame of reference from asking those with the least to do with less to asking those with more to contribute their fair share.

A complementary exercise would be to detail just what our public dollars are buying in the areas in which we’re spending. In public education for instance, it would be worthwhile clarifying that although California is in the top 10 richest economies in the world, no matter how the question is posed, we are in the bottom half of spending per pupil, spending about $8,500 per student, just under the national average of about $9,100.

This means that even in places like San Francisco, where voters are consistent, generous local supporters of education, schools don’t have the full-time staff that many may recall and possibly assume are still there. Schools are making do without by drawing on tremendous wells of volunteer time and resources from parents and community members, but that isn’t the same as a guaranteed educational infrastructure.

The second question regarding reliable revenue streams must begin by removing the nearly impossible to achieve two-thirds threshold for passing a budget or raising taxes. Only until that blockage is gone can other substantial challenges, such as revising Proposition 13, be accomplished in a coherent, thorough way. As it stands, Sacramento comes to an impasse, and then a measure is put on the ballot for the general public to weigh in on. This is hardly an effective approach to paying for and managing the state’s business.

Attempts at getting rid of the two-thirds threshold have been mounted and died before. Currently there are two possible measures (1352 and 1353) that voters will be able to weigh in on. Of the two, only the latter, the “California Budget Efficiency Act” is acceptable because it encompasses taxes as well as the budget.

Education supporters will find other interesting measures on this list, such as 1355, which is a targeted tax for schools. Such an effort, while attractive, does not address the larger structural problems with the state’s finances and will only get caught up in the same kinds of complications that Proposition 98 — another education funding guarantee — has been experiencing for all of these years under Schwarzenegger.

Tuesday’s election was another marker of how broken things are in our state, broken enough so that no one area of concern can be addressed on its own. For public schools to flourish once again in California, we’ll have to get back to basics and ensure a budgetary process that has at least some chance of functioning properly and that can address all of our collective needs fairly and appropriately. That would be something worth voting for.

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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