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California’s Public Education:  Hasta La Vista Baby! MLA


        In a state where public education was once held in high esteem, the current educational funding and governance policies have severed any logical and productive connection between policy and the students of California.  In fact, education is such a low priority that California per-pupil spending is only $7,081, ranking behind 45 other states and the District of Columbia (“Facts”).  California officials seemed to have created funding and governance policies in a vacuum, ignoring the fact that “all children … are affected by the policies of our nation and the values of our culture” (Wright Edelman 116).  In fact, these policies and the cultural values of the citizens and governing officials of California are currently diametrically opposed to the best interests of the students.  This disconnect is exemplified by Governor Schwarzenegger’s cuts in educational funding. California State Superintendent Jack O’Connell reports that “The Governor has proposed $1.3 billion in cuts to this current school year (2009-2010) and another $4 billion in cuts for the next school year. If these cuts are approved in their entirety, they would add to the nearly $12 billion cuts schools were already forced to sustain with the budget agreement that came about in February [2009]” (O’Connel et. al).  Specifically, public education, which makes up roughly 40 percent of state expenditures, took nearly “60% of the cuts over the past two years” (Sanchez).  Even though all sectors of California have been hit hard by the economic downturn,  public education has taken the biggest hit.  As a result, public education is hurling towards a cataclysmic demise unless changes are made and adequate funding is reinstated.  The current state of educational funding and governance in California dictates changes must be made in order to protect California’s greatest commodity-its children.  In order to correct what Marian Wright Edelman calls the “dissonance between promise and performance, between good politics and good policy” (Wright Edelman 117), proposed changes should include changes in California’s tax policies, changing the locus of intra-state control for education, and the need to realign priorities in California.   In order to address California’s economic crisis, Governor Schwarzenegger has chosen to put public education on the cutting block instead of looking at alternative means of revenue or changing the existing tax policies.

            In response to the governor’s sacrifice of public education as the cure-all for California’s economic woes, lobbyist Jeff Frietas declares, “The solution to this budget problem is not to slash and burn education but to re-evaluate our revenue policy” (Wiegand).  However, Governor Schwarzenegger declared on July 20, 2009, that in order to meet the state’s financial deficit, he will not raise taxes but rather cut educational spending to the tune of “$6 billion from schools and community colleges and $3 billion from higher education” (“Plugging”).  This obstinate opposition to raising taxes can be traced to 1978 when California voters passed Proposition 13.  Prior to 1978, each school district in California funded its own budget through the revenues generated by property taxes.  However, funding schools from property taxes created a “disparity between wealthy and poor districts” (Franca-Serpa).    Consequently, the proposal of property taxes as a means for funding public education was attacked from two sides: from people who opposed increases in property taxes and from people who believed that property tax revenue created an unequal playing field for school districts.  However, the issue of inequality of tax revenue for schools was addressed in the California Supreme Court case Serrano vs. Priest. This case found that financing schools on property tax revenue was unconstitutional (Franca-Serpa).  Following this rebuttal of property tax revenue for schools, Proposition 13 then limited the general purpose property tax to one percent (Vanhorne). Today this limitation translates to school districts facing rising costs with a revenue cap imposed by decisions made more than thirty years ago. Despite calls for a revision of state tax law (repealing Proposition 13), Schwarzenegger and the state legislature refuse to address changes in tax law or other tax revenue for school out of fear for their own political lives.  However, it is imperative that tax revenue be addressed as a much needed funding source for the public school system.

            One solution would be to allow local school districts to propose to their citizens a property tax override, above the Proposition 13 limit of one percent, for the exclusive use of public education.  In order to address the argument that this ability to increase individual school districts’ tax revenue would again create educational disparity, a school district buddy system could be incorporated.  For example, if a school district such as El Segundo Unified, passed a local tax law which increases property taxes directed solely towards education, this district would then be required to become an educational finance buddy with a lower income school district.  By becoming a buddy, El Segundo Unified would provide a percentage of the new tax revenue (for example five percent of total income generated by the new property tax) to that lower income district.  Another solution to this disparity problem would be for “[California] to ensure a guaranteed tax yield and perhaps a cap on the funds high-property wealthy districts could generate” (Perry and Edwards).    Thus, each district would be guaranteed a specific property tax income designated for their schools. Another property solution would call for property taxes for homes to remain status quo but that property tax on commercial or nonresidential property to be increased (Wiegand).  However, in light of political resistance to property tax revisions, other solutions such as other sources for taxation for educational revenue must be investigated.

            One such source for taxation is oil.  According to California Energy Commission, 240 million barrels of crude oil were extracted in 2008 from California lands and water, including federal waters offshore (Hiltzik) and not one dollar of tax revenue was collected from this source. California is the only oil-drilling state that gives the oil industry a free ride, meaning that oil companies such as Chevron do not pay tax on the natural resources it drills from California land.  In fact, oil companies spent $150-million on their anti-taxation campaign (Hiltzik).    Recently Proposition 87 attempted to impose a six percent tax on oil.  Hiltzik reports that if this proposition had passed, the revenue would have been nearly $2 billion.  Imagine if this amount had been earmarked for public education?  Instead of ranking 47th in public education funding, California could have moved to the top of the class.  To fight this proposition, oil companies played on the fears of California citizens, threatening them with increased gasoline prices as a result of the proposed tax.  However, Proposition 87 had a provision that would outlaw any attempt for oil companies to increase their prices in order to pay the tax; thus the tax would only cut into oil companies’ profits.  Recognizing the absurdity that California is the only state that does not tax companies for drilling California oil and that California is in a state of dire economic times, Assembly Majority Leader Alberto Torrico recently sponsored Assembly Bill 656 which would impose an oil and gas tax “upon any producer for the privilege of severing oil or gas from the earth or water in this state for sale, transport, consumption, storage, profit, or use, as provided at a specified rate of 9.912.5% of the gross product” (“Assembly Bill”).  The funds generated from this tax would be designated for higher education in California.  Public awareness and support, without the fear mentality endorsed by the oil companies, will be the key in passing this bill which will help to rescue higher public education from the depths of mediocrity.  Thus, taxation must be considered as viable solutions to the current crisis of educational funding.  This cry for taxation-revenue base was heard as far back as 1862, when California Superintendent of Public Instruction John Swett decreed that his role was to “‘canvass the state, not by haranguing political gatherings, but by visiting schools, by encouraging teachers and by talking of free public schools supported by liberal taxation’” (LaSpina 28).  In addition to implementing new sources of educational funding, the locus of governance must be revised in order to implement change.

            Not only did Proposition 13 restrict funding for public education, it changed the locus of control from local districts to Sacramento.  As a result, politicians, not educators, are regulating the process of education in California.  “Now state and federal laws…not school boards or superintendents…dictate how funding is spent” (Vanhorne).  In fact, former Assemblyman John Longville acknowledged this problem in 2004, “‘The further away from the classroom that decisions are made, the worse they tend to be.  That’s just a reality’” (Vanhorne).  As a result of this long distance control, school districts are strangled by the red tape of restrictions and compliance issues.  Loeb et al. cite as evidence of this red tape which impedes districts’ ability to address education on a student by student basis “the regulatory requirements in an Education Code with 500 chapters and more than 1,250 articles.  These requirements stifle local innovation such as extending the school day, providing for teacher collaborative time, or improving reading instruction” (Loeb et al. 2).   In addition, since laws and politicians dictate how funding is spending, there is no room for flexibility or individuality.  Not every school is the same.  There is no “one size fits all” in education.  Every district, every school, and every student is different.   Consequently, it is imperative that accountability and responsibility be aligned.  Specifically, in order for schools and school districts to be held accountable for student learning, they must be given the responsibility and authority to allocate financial resources.  The National Working Group on Funding Student Learning calls for flexible funding to be implemented which will give “teachers, principals, and superintendents the freedom to align resources with instructional goals and to adapt resources to student, classroom, or school circumstances” (Adams et al. 18).  Thus the solution would translate into the following formula:  Step 1:  State collects revenues; Step 2:  Elected officials provide finances to the school districts; Step 3:  Schools then convert those resources to their identified educational programs and needs; and finally Step 4:  These educational programs result in student learning.  Assemblyman Martin Garrick supported the return to district control with this observation, “giving schools freedom and flexibility because the schools know best because it’s right in their backyard.”   Returning the locus of control to the districts will address the current dismal state of public education and reorient the focus on the clients public schools are in the business of serving- the students. 

        Not only must the locus of control be returned to school districts, California must realign the priorities of its financial support structure in order to address the current state of public education.  “In the current budget, UC, Cal State, and the state’s Cal Grant financial aid program combined to receive about $6 billion, not including revenues from student fees.  The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation received $8.12 billion” (Goldmacher and Gordon).  This glaring imbalance of priorities extends down to kindergarten through twelve grade public education funding.  Walters calls attention to the fact that “It now costs about $45,000 a year to feed, clothe, and medicate each of the state’s 170,000-plus inmates, or roughly five times what taxpayers spend on a typical public school student”  (Walters). The current state of financial support is not “only a statement of priorities, but also a reflection of a society’s values” (Harris).  Rather than focus on the future of the state, namely the students, California has chosen to focus on a culture of fear and punishment.  Namely, citizens have voted for stiffer sentences and rules for prisoners (e.g., Three Strikes law) which have driven up the prison population.  While in prison, inmates have access to free health care and free education, including higher education, both of which are not available to a majority of students in California.  Despite research that proves the correlation between the lack of educational opportunities and imprisonment, California has prioritized funding for prisons rather than public education.  Citizens and politicians have ignored the United States Supreme Court’s support of public education in its 1954 landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision:  “‘Nothing predicts future success better than a good education and nothing guarantees failure more than the lack of one.  Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments’” (Harris).   Consequently, funding for public education should exceed funding for the prison system.       

        The need to realign priorities was recently acknowledged by Governor Schwarzenegger in his January 2010 State of the State speech.  The governor proposed a California constitutional amendment that would require that spending on higher education would exceed spending on prisons.  Schwarzenegger said, “‘The priorities have become out of whack…Thirty years ago, 10% of the general fund went to higher education and 3% went to prisons.  Today, almost 11% goes to prisons and only 7.5% goes to higher education” (Goldmacher and Gordon).   However, Schwarzenegger failed to address the immediacy of the financial problems facing public education.  His proposal is not to be implemented until 2014-2015.  At the current trend of budget cuts for education at all levels, by his proposed implementation date of 2014-2015 public education may very well be mediocre at the best, bankrupted, or nonexistent at the worst.  Immediate change in funding priorities must occur which then will return public education to the number one spot.  Education needs to be the top priority in state funding as both a preventive measure and an investment in the future of California.  The current imbalance in priorities has created a system in which crime, fear, and failures are addressed to the detriment of education.  Therefore, it is imperative that the imbalance be corrected now through revisions of state laws (e.g., changing the three strikes law) and monies be reinstated to public education.

        For the future of California and its citizens, public education funding and governance must change.  Fixing the state’s economic woes on the back of public education is counter-productive.  The “proposed $11.6 billion in cuts to K-12 education” (O’Connel et al.) and the additional cuts to higher education will impact the quality and proficiency of the next generation of workers in California.  Consequently, funding public education must be viewed as an investment policy and as such, dictates that additional sources of tax revenue be implemented along with the change of the locus of control and a change in funding priorities.  Instead of accepting the current solutions of raising tuition and eliminating classes and programs to address economic woes, it is time to take a definitive and vocal stance in changing the state of California’s public education system.  Tough decisions need to be made and the time is now for such changes. “Martin Luther King Jr. once observed: ‘Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’  Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ Vanity comes along and asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’ ‘But,’ King added, ‘Conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’” (Harris).  California’s legislators and governor should be asked the same question, “Is it right?” in regards to their actions pertaining to public education.  Their response should be a resounding “No,” followed by a call for changes in educational funding and governance. 







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