We’ve all heard or been part of debates about public education. While it’s been great water cooler conversation, real-world reality comes down to what the states do, and few state legislatures are as bad at managing education concerns as California’s.
It’s been a great proving ground for the local districts, which have been forced to do more with less, in light of more than $18 billion in state cuts over the past few years, and more on the way. As 2011 came to a close, California Governor Jerry Brown pulled triggers that called for cuts to several state budget items, the largest cut of which was aimed at education. While the cuts to Mammoth Unified and Eastern Sierra Unified school districts could have been worse, it’s bothersome that the automatic cuts were programmed to pull money from schools first and foremost.
Mammoth residents recently opted to renew the $59 parcel tax to bolster public school budgets, and are probably scratching their heads at why county schools are tightening their belts further and debating whether to mothball buses.
If he’s successful in placing them on the November ballot, Brown will ask voters to approve a package of tax hikes to stave off any future education cuts, a reaction to how badly both sides of the aisle have handled budget crafting before and since he took office.
Indeed, it seems that our dysfunctional lawmakers in Sacramento seem to think that it’s okay to balance a budget on revenue that isn’t really there and at the same time do nothing to rein in out-of-control spending. Then, when the going inevitably gets tough, pay for it on the backs of an already underfunded, overburdened education system.
To illustrate just how overburdened schools are now, during December’s MUSD Board of Education meeting, former Chair Jack Farrell related parts of a treatise on public education by Jamie Vollmer, a champion of public education, and noted author of the book, “Schools Cannot Do It Alone.” Vollmer’s point is that since it was instituted, increases in public education’s tasks have far outpaced additional money and time to accomplish them.
America’s public schools, championed under President Thomas Jefferson’s administration, were established to teach basic reading, writing and arithmetic, and some history and civics. Until around 1900, the only real additions to the curriculum were science and geography.
At the beginning of the 20th century, however, curriculums were expanded and assigned additional duties, a trend that’s continued ever since, with new responsibilities either created or shifted to public schools.
From 1900 to 1910: Nutrition, Immunization and Health activities.
In the 1950s, expanded science, math, music and art requirements, safety and driver’s education were introduced, foreign language requirements, and thanks to the Kinsey Report, sex education!
In the 1980s, the floodgates really opened, adding: Computer education, Multicultural/Ethnic education, English-as-a-second-language, Teen Pregnancy awareness, and more.
And from 2000-present: No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Bullying prevention, Anti-harassment policies, Body Mass Index evaluation, Organ donor education and awareness, Personal Finance, Entrepreneurial innovation, Media literacy and Wellness.
This list is but a partial one. As Farrell and Vollmer both noted, virtually none of these things have since been taken off Public Education’s plate, and school years and school days are in fact getting shorter, not longer.
Meanwhile, Brown’s tax plan frankly puts voters in a no-win situation. Neither higher taxes nor more cuts to schools are desirable. But as Farrell’s fellow BOE member Greg Newbry pointed out, any future negotiations have to be “all about the kids, not the teachers.” And he’s right. In the short term, failing a major “come to Jesus” moment in Sacramento, approving new tax hikes could be the only recourse we the people have left to us. Until we can radically retool the priorities and processes at the state level, after all we’ve asked education to do, we might have to do this. Just remember this list when you go to the ballot box.