California’s Greek tragedy: New lows in mortgaging our children’s future

(This commentary first appeared in TOP-Ed.)

World events sometimes display an odd connection. On June 30th, in a closely watched vote, the Greek Parliament approved a package of financial stability measures while angry protestors clashed with police in the streets. The vote stabilized Greece’s finances, reassured its creditors and calmed nervous investors worldwide.

For years, the Greeks rang up outrageous debts. Their tax system was broken and they couldn’t offset lavish spending on public sector pensions and benefits. At all levels, from the average household to the national government, the country had lived far beyond its means. When the world economy went south, Greece was forced to seek a massive bailout from the World Bank and its European neighbors. Sadly, in good times, the Greeks failed to focus on their long-term economic productivity through investments in their education system.

Two days earlier, in a not-as-closely-watched vote, the California legislature passed a 2011-12 state budget that apparently closes a $10 billion deficit – after failing to secure Republican support for a mix of budget cuts and tax extensions. Gov. Brown had vetoed an earlier Democratic version of the budget, calling it “unbalanced.”  Yet, the budget that legislators passed on a party line vote and that the governor signed is far from “balanced.” In fact, it contains financial maneuvers that would have made the most profligate Greek governments blush.

Like previous California budgets this one simply kicks the financial can into the future, forcing our children to pay for our current spending. But even worse, lawmakers adopted a new technique of balancing the budget based on $4 billion that might appear if the economy improves. And they added a series of mandates that force local school districts and county offices of education to adopt unsound financial practices in an apparent state-level attempt to protect local union jobs.

First of all, the budget bill forces districts to base their local budgets on the state’s rosy scenario, discouraging them from setting aside reserves to tide themselves over in an emergency (such as the sudden disappearance of $4 billion in optimistic revenue). Most unbelievably, the language of the bill requires them to maintain current staffing levels even if the state cuts the education budget. In essence, the bill prevents districts from making any personnel cuts if the economy gets worse and projected state revenue doesn’t materialize. And to make all of this work, it suspends the longstanding financial oversight of districts provided by county offices of education, allowing districts to pass unbalanced budgets with unsustainable personnel costs without any negative consequences.

Similar overindulgence

So, in Greece, a sober government passed a sound budget after years of financial overindulgence. In California, our leaders took financial overindulgence to a new level. Not only have they institutionalized irresponsible budgeting at a state level, they’ve mandated that local districts act in a similarly irresponsible ways and removed the authority of the folks responsible for auditing them.

In Greece’s case, the entire financial world breathed a sigh of relief after their elected leaders acted rationally. In California’s case, a small group of long-time Sacramento insiders have mortgaged the future of our children to satisfy their union buddies.

Beyond the obvious, what’s wrong with this picture?

California is the world’s 8th largest economy. Greece is the world’s 27th.  Greece has about 12 million people. California has 37 million.

Like any household, the future of our children depends on how well we spend our money and plan for tomorrow.  At the height of its boom, Greece spent money it didn’t have, treated its public sector as a giant jobs program, and failed to prioritize investments in its education system.  In California, we are spending money we don’t have, treating our school systems as giant jobs programs, and failing to invest in reforming our education system to close achievement gaps and provide greater opportunities for college and career success for our underserved communities.  In fact, one of the cuts that would happen if the projected revenue doesn’t materialize is shortening the school year by as much as seven days – eliminating vital days of instruction for our highest need students, such as our 1.3 million English Learners.

Indeed, even when it comes to unions, some interests clearly matter far more than others to our leaders. On the same day that Governor Brown struck this budget deal protecting members of the powerful California Teachers Association, he vetoed a simple bill that would have made it easier for the United Farm Workers to organize the powerless. The reality is that those in power, the Sacramento insiders that crafted this budget, have no incentive to change their behavior. Despite having run Sacramento for years, they argue that the real problem with California is its citizens and an initiative system that has “tied the hands of government”. The opposite is true. California’s problem isn’t its people but the people running our government.

As the title of this piece indicates, this is our Greek tragedy. If we want to keep this tragedy from ending in the Greek way, our elected leaders must immediately pass legislation that would restore fiscal sanity and overturn the requirements of this sordid budget deal. Then, as Californians, we should take the anger and disgust with government that we normally direct into the initiative process and direct it into the electoral process.  With open primaries and new districts, Californians will have a real opportunity to break the death grip of the two CTAs (the California Taxpayers Association and the California Teachers Association) on the Capitol and support elected officials whose special interest is California’s children and communities. The promise of California has always been its capacity for renewal. Not only do we deserve better than this, we are better than this.

Arun Ramanathan is executive director of The Education Trust—West, a statewide education advocacy organization. He has served as a district administrator, research director, teacher, paraprofessional and VISTA volunteer in California, New England and Appalachia. He has a doctorate in educational administration and policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His wife is a teacher and reading specialist and they have a child in preschool and another in a Spanish immersion elementary school in Oakland Unified.

Filed under: Commentary, State Education Policy

Tags: ,


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comment Policy

EdSource encourages a robust debate on education issues and welcomes comments from our readers.

  • To preserve a civil dialogue, writers should avoid personal, gratuitous attacks and invective.
  • Comments should be relevant to the subject of the article responded to.
  • EdSource retains the right not to publish inappropriate and offensive comments.
  • EdSource encourages commenters to use their real names. Commenters who do decide to use a pseudonym should use it consistently.
  • Please limit comments to 250 words to prevent comment clutter; if you intend to say more please link out to a place that contains your full comment.
  • Comments with more than one link automatically enter moderation. Comments from new commenters are automatically moderated.
  • Repeated violation of this comment policy will lead to a warning. Continued violations will lead to a ban.

6 Responses to “California’s Greek tragedy: New lows in mortgaging our children’s future”

EdSource does not track who "likes or dislikes" a comment. We only track the number of likes and dislikes.

  1. Mike on Jul 12, 2011 at 1:30 pm07/12/2011 1:30 pm

    • 000

    Republicans do not hold a single statewide elected office. They are vastly outnumbered in both houses of the legislature. Not a single Republican vote is required to pass a budget. Yet you still blame Republicans for California’s fiscal crisis?

  2. Russ Lemon on Jul 10, 2011 at 12:53 am07/10/2011 12:53 am

    • 000

    I suppose that I should add, that when I went to school in California over 50 years ago, our high school class size usually ran between 30 and 35 students.  But there were exceptions.  My civics teacher had five classes of about 125 students each.  He taught the entire Senior class.  He was also an elected politician.
    On the other hand, I do have to admit that we had fewer students who wanted to be left behind.  Those who did not want to study, who did not want to work for any grade, simply left school.  Their choice.  Their grades were an accurate indication of their ability and desires.  Back then we had the freedom to fail.

  3. Russ Lemon on Jul 10, 2011 at 12:37 am07/10/2011 12:37 am

    • 000

    I worked as an electrical engineer for several corporations in California.  None of them provide me with a pension.  One company had a great pension plan with a pension at age 55.  As each engineer turned 50, there would be birthday celebration and the next day he (or she) would be gone.  I talked to an airline pilot in line at a pharmacy.  He said that even though he had an excellent record, he was laid off 5 months before he could claim his pension.  If you can expect a pension, consider yourself lucky.   But everyone I know that works in the public sector, expects a pension.  The problem is that California is losing something like 10% of its wealth every year.  Most of that is in private individuals and corporations leaving this over taxed state.  Until California can bring in corporations that can produce something to sell to the rest of the World, total California assets will continue to decline.  Even agriculture revenue was significantly decimated when central valley water was shut off for a smelt fish, and a Salmon farm on the Sacramento River.  Increasing claims on a decreasing pot leads to bankruptcy.  And those of us left, those of us on Social Security, cannot afford any significant contribution to your pot.  Sorry.  Do the math yourself.

  4. Ariel Paisley on Jul 9, 2011 at 11:25 pm07/9/2011 11:25 pm

    • 000

    The repetitious act of blaming the teachers’ union for our state’s financial insolvency is growing old.  What needs to be understood is that teachers make a financial bargain when we settle for much less salary than we deserve in exchange for a modest pension and health benefits.
    My level of education and intellect would have earned me a six-figure salary in the private sector.  However, my parents raised me to believe that I have social responsibilities; I was raised to see public service as the greatest contribution that a person can make to society.  I became a teacher because I share my parents’ belief that one should serve society rather than oneself.
    All I ask, after spending 30 years educating other peoples’ children, is to retire with a modest level of financial security.  Please stop blaming me and my fellow teachers for the fiscal troubles in California.  We did not cause this problem, nor did our union.  Our pension system is mostly self-supporting and we deserve every penny of our salary, pensions, and benefits.  While most teachers have masters degrees, those of us who stay in the profession end up with substantially reduced lifetime earnings compared to what we could have earned in the private sector.  However, we chose to serve society instead of pursuing personal wealth.
    California’s budget crisis is real, but blaming the problem on teachers, firefighters, police officers, nurses, and other public servants betrays a profound ignorance of what it really takes to keep our society running.  If public servants’ salaries were raised into the six-figure range, we could save more for retirement.  As it stands, most public employees can barely afford a middle-class lifestyle.  Our modest pensions are all we have to show for a lifetime of public service.  Please, get real and look elsewhere for the money to balance the budget.

  5. Steve P. on Jul 9, 2011 at 5:09 pm07/9/2011 5:09 pm

    • 000

    The Greek tragedy comparison hits me as hyperbole frankly.  It’s popular conservative pap to say that we have spent lavishly when the retirement system is largely funded by teacher’s themselves & is no danger of needing a fiscal rescue.
    It’s too bad we ended up with such  a mixed up bag for a budget, but that’s what happens when you get irresponsible & fanatical  policy makers who block a reasonable & balanced approached to dealing with the budget crisis.  Quite frankly this was about republican power.  They need to stop listening to their party bosses & do what’s right for Californians.  The only thing to do now is hope for the best & take away the minorities ability to obstruct in the future.

  6. Cathy Lee on Jul 9, 2011 at 10:40 am07/9/2011 10:40 am

    • 000

    Most districts have been putting money away,  via furlough days, larger class size and other cuts and having much larger reserves just in case. So for most districts keeping what is current is a response to the cuts. So they are ready for what might happen if the rosy picture doesn’t come about. It still isn’t the best thing for our current students. 28 students in a kindergarten classroom where most students didn’t have preschool is not the way to do the right thing for those students were in a more affluent their students are at 20 or 24.

Template last modified: