A blank check to Sacramento would be a Dickens of a bad deal

January 3, 2012

(This commentary first appeared in TOP-Ed.)

Back when I was working in schools in New England, we had snow days. In California, our kids have “budget cut days.” Unlike the snow days, there’s no surprise or joy to them and they never get made up. Once they’re gone, they’re gone forever. For those kids who need them the most, like the hundreds of thousands of students in our state who are learning English, the learning time is irretrievably lost.

This November, California voters are going to be asked to vote for ballot initiatives to tax themselves and the rich to raise more money for education. In the coming months, the proponents of these initiatives will serenade us with stories of cuts to the school year, increasing class sizes, and disappearing education services while our state’s wealthiest citizens live high on the hog. I can see the commercials already ­– a sad child staring out of the screen, begging voters, “Please sir. Tax the rich so I can have a future.” Based on recent polls, Californians are poised to respond to these messages and pass the initiatives.

Maybe it’s my repeated viewings of A Christmas Carol this past holiday season (or my experience working in districts and Sacramento), but the more I learn about these initiatives, the more I’ve been shouting “Bah, Humbug!” Call me a Scrooge, but for years I’ve been hearing Sacramento insiders complain that the problem with California is that we voted for initiatives that tied their hands. Now, these same folks have decided that the best way to fix everything is to pass another initiative.

Give me a break. I’ve seen the Ghosts of Novembers past, and no matter how many of their initiatives I’ve voted to pass, things haven’t gotten better for the majority of our state’s communities and their kids.

Look at the state of education in California. It’s positively Dickensian. For the most part, the adults who’ve been in the system the longest are doing quite well. Our wealthy districts protect their schools through their foundations, parcel taxes, and excess property taxes. Our poor districts, which have the students with the greatest needs, take the brunt of the budget cuts. Our teachers, especially those who have been in the system the longest, are among the best paid in the nation. Down at the other end of the salary scale, our young teachers get laid off or bumped from school to school no matter how effective they are in the classroom. In some districts, school employees get lifetime health benefits for themselves and their families. Meanwhile the school health clinics that serve our poorest neighborhoods are shuttered and school nursing positions eliminated. Everywhere you look, the social safety net inside and outside our schools has been shredded.

Dickens was a tireless crusader against the stark income inequality of his time. A Christmas Carol is an allegory about the negative impacts of severe income inequity – with Ebenezer Scrooge serving as the original representative of the “1%.” The proponents of upcoming ballot initiatives argue that taxing California’s Scrooges will restore our education system, thereby restoring our best path to income equality. But anyone who’s spent any time at school board meetings knows that the interests of children – especially the children in poverty and their families – are down near the bottom of the list, after the interests of the adult groups who got the board members elected. Give districts more money and sure, they might restore school days, summer school, and intervention programs for our state’s millions of Tiny Tims – but only after they’ve finished satisfying pent-up salary demands, backfilling pension and benefit obligations, increasing their reserves, paying off early retirement incentives, and recalling employees by seniority.

Reforms part of the package

Let me be clear. Given the cuts over the last five years, I strongly believe that we need to pass a ballot initiative to restore school funding. But giving a blank check to a bunch of guys in Sacramento whose first response to any question of policy is “What does CTA think?” and who cut many of the deals that got us into this mess – is not the answer.

If our leaders want taxpayers to pony up, they should commit to major reforms as part of the package. They ought to have an answer to those people who have no problem paying more taxes so our children can have a better life but sure as hell don’t want to pay more taxes so a bunch of well-placed adults can have a better life than they have. They ought to be able to tell us with complete transparency where our money is going and commit to making sure that 100 percent of it flows directly to schools based on the needs of their students. They should promise to stand up to their special-interest backers and pass the reforms necessary to fix our education system and keep our best teachers in the classroom, regardless of seniority – so we know our money isn’t wasted.

The Ghost of Christmas Future told Scrooge that the future wasn’t written yet. He had the opportunity to change it by reforming how he acted in the present. The same holds true for our leaders in Sacramento and for California voters. Otherwise, the future is guaranteed to look a lot like the present.

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.

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