Fixing funding for schools — and colleges, and all the rest

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CSBA, the California School Boards Association, and other major education groups have been talking for years about suing the state to bring California’s dismally low school funding up to something approaching adequate levels.

And while there are still no details, it now seems increasingly likely that a suit will be filed this spring, possibly as early as April. There are certainly ample grounds for it.

The suits would come at the same time that researchers at the Public Policy Institute of California are working on a plan to thoroughly revamp what they call California’s “overly complex” and “inequitable” school funding system and as the U.S. Department of Education is reportedly readying its own civil rights suit against educational inequities in some Southern California school districts.

Six years ago, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, much to his credit, settled the Williams v. California, a suit demanding that the state provide the materials, decent facilities and competent teachers – or indeed any regular teachers – that tens of thousands of poor and minority California school children weren’t getting.

But the settlement, which promised a book for every student, better facilities and the eventual end of truncated, broken-up school calendars and fractured school years, covered only part of the inequities.

The issue of bringing better teachers into schools serving disadvantaged students was left to the meaningless definitions of the federal No Child Left Behind law. Under it, any person making “satisfactory progress toward full certification as prescribed by the State” is regarded as “highly qualified.”

The egregious gaps between the number of experienced teachers in affluent schools and the number in rural and inner city schools have shrunk, but however measured, the gaps are still there.

And with the cuts in the state budget of the past two years, and, despite Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s claims to the contrary, the nearly certain cuts in education funding still ahead make the commitments Schwarzenegger made on books and facilities look increasingly shaky.

Books are falling apart or lost and not being replaced, custodial and other maintenance staff are being drastically cut, allowing increasing number of school facilities to slowly deteriorate toward the wretched conditions that prompted Williams.

More fundamentally, in the years since the Williams settlement, the governor has studiously ignored the recommendations of his own commission on education excellence and funding.

“The state,” says a draft CSBA legal memo, “has violated its constitutional duty to operate a functioning ‘system of common schools’” because the disconnect between its standards and funding “is so severe that many school districts simply cannot provide the ‘prescribed course of study’ and “educational progression from grade to grade” that are fundamental to the system as a whole.

“School funding amounts and mechanisms are insufficient to deliver to all students the comprehensive education that that the state has defined.”

The memo also charges that the state’s funding system “creates and exacerbates unequal learning opportunities as measured by access to the resources needed to master the academic content standards.”

It’s no accident that preparation for the suit comes at the same time that thousands of university students, many of their professors and other employees of the state’s colleges and universities are also preparing for marches and demonstrations early next month demanding rollbacks of tuition increases, the restoration of the thousands of classes that have been cuts and the end of furloughs and other pay cuts.

Given the damage inflicted by budget cuts both to the formal institutions of education and to major ancillary programs in health and children’s services both the suit and the protests are hardly surprising and, where they’re directed at voters and their representatives in Sacramento, long overdue.

Nor should they be limited to those now in office but focused even more on our wannabes – Jerry Brown, Steve Poizner, Meg Whitman — who seem to be blissfully unaware of the distress and fearfully indifferent to the damage, present and future. If the campus protestors intend to be effective, instead of shutting down classes and marching on the homes of chancellors, picket the political campaign events, rally at the fancy fundraisers; rattle the doors of politicians and their financial backers.
 
More important, the protests and lawsuits will be mostly ineffective unless they focus on the common source of their problems: the unwillingness of voters and politicians, Republicans especially, to increase the revenues without which those complaints, whether in court or on the street, will do little but impossibly ask for larger slices of the same small pie.

The planners at CSBA understand that, as their draft memo puts it, “successful litigation by itself will not resolve the problem, and that a political solution is necessary as well.” The organization thus plans to follow up its suit with a public relations campaign “that utilizes the litigation to highlight problems and potential solutions to California’s school funding system.”

But that, too, would be better conducted beyond the silo of the K-12 system. The parts – higher education, the public schools, pre-school, health, child care, parents counseling – are all inseparably linked, both in their costs and their benefits.

Right now Sacramento robs one to “protect” another, even as the voters are still clutching the illusion that it can all be done without more revenues and as the campus demonstrators still think that everything could be fixed if only administrators got paid less. It just ain’t so.

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Peter Schrag, whose exclusive weekly column appears every Monday in the California Progress Report, is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future and California: America’s High Stakes Experiment. His new book, Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America will be published in 2010.

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