(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.
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.