School Beat: Budget Agreement Brings Hard Times to Schools

by Lisa Schiff on February 26, 2009

Hard times have definitely come to California. An early analysis from the California Budget Project (pdf) reports that the new budget deal includes $14.9 billion in spending cuts, a huge chunk of which are coming from education, assistance for the poor, and transportation. Earlier in the week the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) (pdf) estimated the cut to San Francisco’s schools alone at about $50 million.

Our budget process is irrefutably broken and our tax structure is regressive and out of date. Our financial system makes it difficult, some might say impossible, for us to address modern economic realities and meet our collective needs. The budget that elected officials in Sacramento finally agreed to is testament to this and much more.

The largest immediate road-block in this latest budget battle was the natural outcome of the two-thirds majority requirement to pass the budget. This meant that a few Republicans needed to cross party-lines and reject for the moment the “no taxes” pledge they swear to uphold upon being elected. Enough did, some at great cost, while most clung to the illusion that the world we’ve built around us is either unimportant or not worth paying for.

Perhaps those unwilling to ensure that everyone contributes fairly to our shared physical and social infrastructure should decline to benefit from it as well. Let them forgo roads, bridges, sewage systems, airports, traffic lights, police departments, fire departments, and yes, schools. No-tax proponents should walk the talk, and live their dream of freely accumulated personal wealth in some environmentally unprotected zone off-the-grid, where their tax-free dollars can be kept under a pillow or in a non-federally insured financial institution.

Most of us, though, would rather hand over our reasonable portion to the public coffers and benefit from the resulting economies of scale when we join together to provide for things like water treatment plants. I like the security of knowing that designs have been reviewed and inspections have taken place when I drive over any one of the bridges connecting me to the various parts of the Bay Area. It’s worth paying police offers and social workers decent wages, so that we can then expect them to do their best when called upon. And the sensibility of investing in schools and children should go without saying, but of course it does not.

But this budget does little towards reprioritizing where we spend our public dollars and even less in more fairly portioning out the bill. It’s a success and a relief only because of the potential disaster that was averted by having no budget at all. Now we have something we must live with for the next year and a half that is not only painful, but does not reflect the realities and priorities of our state.

Just look at education, an area in which we’ve had to wrestle Governor Schwarzenegger for literally every dollar since he took office. According to the April 2008 study (pdf) by the Public Policy Institute, 60% of Californians rank K-12 education at the top of the list of areas to protect from budget cuts. This opinion crossed all demographic lines, from party affiliation, to race and ethnicity, to region of the state. Yet per pupil funding levels rank us perilously close to the bottom and schools are seen as a source of financial cushioning.

The priorities of the bulk of the population seem to matter little and the implications for education are astonishing, especially if we consider that this may only be the beginning. In addition to the excellent California Budget Project analysis, the California School Boards Association (CSBA) has also released a good short summary of the budget and its impact on public education in California. For the 2008-2009 period, $5.9 billion will be taken from the Proposition 98 appropriation. (Proposition 98 is the legislation that’s supposed to guarantee a minimum level of school funding.). The 2009-2010 cuts are just as bad, of course. Cost of Living Adjustments (COLAs) are eliminated; the Proposition 98 allocation is reduced by a further $530 million; and a special grants program for high schools is cut by over $100 million.

Categorical funding, the funding associated with specific programs, will also see cuts. Certain programs won’t be touched, such as K-3 class size reduction and student nutrition, however penalties for failing to meet the goals of this set of programs will be relaxed; district administrators may end up in an ugly cost/benefit analysis exercise, where they are forced to weigh the financial price of failing to meet such requirements versus the ability to shift dollars to programs that are being cut. Other programs will see serious budget cuts (15%), with varying ability to shift money around without being penalized.

Last year we were at similar, though not quite so desperate point and the City jumped in, rescuing our schools, particularly our teachers, with a huge contribution from the Rainy Day Fund. That influx of money saved the jobs of over 500 teachers, a benefit not only to them, but to all of the students they work with every day.

Yesterday Mayor Gavin Newsom and the Supervisors announced that the City would give the SFUSD $11 million dollars, enough to save 130 teachers’ jobs. Under a debated interpretation of the Rainy Day legislation, this is half of the amount schools are due (something to definitely email the Mayor about), but even at the higher level of funding most interpret schools should be receiving, we’d still be falling short. The potential number of teachers being laid off is once again over 500, leaving quite a gap to bridge. This year the financial crisis is worse, and although our City is again coming to the rescue, the pool of resources from the Rainy Day Fund needs to stretch even further. Sadly, schools will be keeping good company with other essential services also requiring support.

Although it feels like the battle is over now that the budget has been signed, that’s not really the case. We will see a revision in May, following a special election in May that will have budget issues for voters to evaluate, from a state rainy day fund to controls on the salaries of elected officials. These are issues that public education activists will want and need to weigh in on, not even taking into account lobbying to make sure that schools get their intended share of the Obama stimulus package.

And in reality larger struggles still lay before us, the results of which would have potentially great impact. Getting the most attention currently is eliminating the super-majority required to pass a budget in the first place. Lurking in the background but gaining more momentum each time essential services are cut is the effort to revamp Proposition 13 so that at least part of our revenue generation strategy matches the reality of today’s world and priorities of our population. Like we’ve known for so long, it’s these kinds of structural changes that we need if schools and other social goods are to be adequately and securely supported.

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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