Anybody Up There Care About The Schools?5 min read

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Last Monday, a group of students and parents, joined by a coalition of civil rights organizations filed the second major lawsuit in recent weeks charging the state with failing to meet its constitutional and moral obligations to provide quality education to its six million K-12 students.

Two days later, perhaps not coincidentally, the California Budget Project published a report headed “California’s Support for Schools Lags the Nation.” It was full of depressingly familiar numbers: California is near the bottom among the states in school spending per pupil; dead last in school spending as a percentage of personal income; last in teachers per students; ditto for counselors, librarians and administrators.

A few days before, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had offered his contribution to improving the schools. As one way to streamline the state bureaucracy, he suggested, eliminate the post of the elected superintendent of schools. (Yes, it’s ironic, but it’s true)

“In California we elect a Superintendent of Public Instruction,” he said. “But why? We already have a Secretary of Education and a Board of Education. Why do we need a Superintendent of Education?”

It’s not a new idea, in fact it’s antique, a staple of constitutional reformers for the past two decades. We have a stupid, convoluted system with an elected superintendent supposed to administrator policies established by a board appointed by the governor. And of course it’s the governor who, as much as anyone, controls the budget.

Schwarzenegger does have a secretary of education – in fact he’s had many, too many to count, a revolving door of secretaries — but he hardly notices them. If there are any Throttlebottoms in his administration, the secretaries of education are among the leading candidates.

But as the new suit points out, Schwarzenegger hasn’t paid any attention even to the findings of his own Committee on Educational Excellence, which concluded (in 2007) that California’s educational system was “fundamentally flawed.”

It is not close [its report said] to helping each student become proficient in mastering the state’s clear curricular standards, and wide disparities persist between rich and poor, between students of color and others, and between native English learners and native English speakers. Our current system is simply not preparing every student to be successful in college or work; it is not producing the results that taxpayers and citizens are counting on and that our children deserve.

And as every day’s news makes clear, in the past two or three years almost everything has gotten worse for the schools, as for most of the state’s other public services. The new suit, led by Public Advocates of San Francisco, alleges that the state’s K-14 school spending has been cut $17 billion in the past two years, with yet more to come.

The exact numbers can be debated but the overall impact should be clear. As the suit charges; the legislature is now allowing districts to shorten the school year; new textbook adoptions have been delayed; the once ballyhooed class-size reduction program is being shredded, teachers are being laid off by the thousands, and art, music and summer programs eliminated.

It’s hard to decide what’s most deplorable in this picture. Is it the additional hardships and disadvantages imposed on the state’s poorest kids, who have long been consigned to the poorest schools and, in a disproportionate number of cases, to the weakest teachers, and sometimes to no regular teachers at all?

Is it the fact that even the state’s white, middle-class students achieve lower scores on national tests than their peers in other states? Is it the fact that California’s college graduation rates are low in a nation whose own graduation rates have been steadily falling behind those of our economic competitors?

Or is it the short-sightedness of state policy where almost no one has the courage to point out that our overall tax burden compared to other states is about average, and  that contrary to myth, our great periods of economic growth coincided with higher taxes?

Neither the new suit, nor the similar one filed in May by the California School Boards Association and other groups addresses the question of state revenues. It merely cites the state’s constitutional obligation to give funding priority to schools.

But adequate funding can’t possibly be achieved without major new revenues: elimination of scores of corporate tax loopholes; a broadened sales tax to include services and internet sales; an oil severance tax and a split roll for the property tax under which commercial property would be taxed at its real value, not on some frozen past assessment. The last would also even the playing field for a lot of businesses.

The only alternative would be to cut all other service even more drastically, from higher education to health and social services, which would be just as damaging to children and the state’s future as the cuts to education. What the suits may do – and it’s a big “may” – is inch public understanding slowly toward the obvious connection: what we save now will cost our children – and the state — many times over in the future.

Schwarzenegger is almost history. But sadly, so far neither of the people hoping to succeed him has shown much of a glimmer of interest or understanding either. Will they ever?

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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 is now on sale. To reach Peter, email him at petersch@sonic.net.

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