Schwarzenegger's Education Failures
Arnold Schwarzenegger came to Sacramento promising to end "politics as usual." But the partisan barbs continued as the governor called legislators "girlie men" and likened them to "children" in need of a "time-out." More substantively, shell games, secret deals and borrowing still held the day as the budget was, once again, late. And with his so-called "no-tax" pledge Schwarzenegger locked himself into a position of drastically cutting (and raising fees for) state-provided services. Nowhere is this more evident than in education, the state's largest expenditure.
Schwarzenegger is setting two dangerous precedents for education in California. He struck a deal with the California Teacher's Association (CTA) to suspend constitutionally guaranteed K--12 school funding. And he proposed suspending the promise, for the first time in forty years, that every eligible California high school graduate would have a place at the University of California or a California State University. This from the governor who pledged to "work to expand the dream of college."
Schwarzenegger's wheeling and dealing began in January with a back-room pact with the CTA to suspend the state constitution. The CTA agreed to a $2 billion increase in K--12 school funding this year, half of what the constitution mandates, in exchange for assurances that (in better economic times) all the money will eventually be restored. With the state saddled with record deficits and a governor who steadfastly refuses to consider raising revenue through taxes, CTA president Barbara Kerr argues that, "in order for our state to stay afloat, concessions were needed."
"I know the CTA struck the best possible deal," she says. "It is fully funding class size, special education, textbooks and all of the categorical programs the state depends on." To Kerr's credit she says, "the CTA believes strongly that we need to raise taxes." But if that is the case, why did she agree to a $2 billion cut to California schools? And how can the "programs the state depends on" be fully funded if they are shorted $2 billion?
"If you adjust for the cost of living, you can make the case that we are close to last in per-pupil spending in this country," says Delaine Eastin, the former State Superintendent of Schools, California's top education post. California's per pupil spending is around $6500, while New York spends nearly $11,000 per student. "The governor is not putting children first. California is not putting our children first," says Eastin. "There has been a back-room deal cut where everyone agrees to cut education and not talk much about it. It is wrong."
How serious are the cuts? Just take a look at the West Contra Costa Unified School District, an urban area encompassing some of the poorest parts of the San Francisco Bay area. In March, the district, which has been forced to pare down its budget by $28 million over the last three years, eliminated all school sports programs, closed all its libraries and pink-slipped more than 200 employees. That amounts to nearly $1,000 per student in cuts over three years. "It saddens me," says Catherine Berman, a speech teacher there who retired in 2002 and has yet to be replaced. "I see students losing opportunities in urban settings."
On May 10, a group from WCC Unified organized a hunger strike to convince Schwarzenegger to fully fund education and forgive the debt owed to the state by the district. For twenty-five days they camped outside the Capitol, fasting on only water. One by one they wilted until only two remained. Schwarzenegger refused to meet with them or their representatives.
Finally, after the intervention of Democratic legislators and labor leader Dolores Huerta, Schwarzenegger agreed to refinance the district's state loan. The protesters returned home with the promise of a lower interest rate, which, according to the West Contra Costa superintendent, would net the district a paltry $300,000 to $450,000 per year, less than three percent of the $16.5 million deficit the district faced.
"We still don't know what the interest rate will be," says superintendent Gloria Johnston. "We are just thrilled, however, that the governor agreed to something." It is a testament to how cash-starved the district is that Johnston was "thrilled" by the refinancing of a loan.
Luckily, local voters stepped up and passed a tax initiative, funneling $8 million into the schools and reducing the severity of the cuts (from $16.5 to $8 million). Among the improvements, the schools will be a little cleaner (ten custodians were rehired). There will be smaller mounds of paperwork (secondary school clerks were rehired). And the district will spend $500,000 on new textbooks. At $80 a pop that works out to be one new textbook for every five students.
"Although more egregious," Eastin laments, "West Contra Costa is a mini-lesson on what is happening all over the state." But some schools, like Lowell High School of San Francisco, are fighting cuts with voracious private fundraising. An academic magnet school that consistently ranks in the top three in the state, Lowell has a strong alumni network and a dedicated Parent Teacher Student Association. The school is not "wealthy," one in five students qualify for free or reduced lunches, but it does have a fundraising base to draw from.
Terry Abad, a vice president in the Lowell Alumni Association, spearheaded a campaign that brought in $385,000 last year, much of which was used to hire back faculty and staff that had been laid off.
"I certainly didn't launch into this idea lightly," says Abad. "To fundraise to pay teachers' salaries? Precedent-wise, it is huge. I mean, how do you get out of it in the future? I agree we need to help everybody, but in the short run I can't do that. In the short run, I can work to improve, or at least maintain, programs at one school."
What results is the de facto privatization of public education. Because the state refuses to provide sufficient funding, affluent communities are filling in the gap. But many communities cannot afford to pay for what is supposed to be free public education.
"It is tragic and unfair," says Michele Winter, a Lowell music teacher. "The neediest schools don't have a fundraising base. How can you raise funds from a base of low-income families? It is widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots." On August 12, Schwarzenegger did reportedly settle a lawsuit with the ACLU, which promises to pump money into 2,400 of California's poorest and lowest-performing schools. The agreement, which remains to be approved by the courts, could signal a shift in the governor's priorities.
But, Schwarzenegger's steadfast refusal to re-examine how schools are funded or to raise taxes means that important programs will be eliminated, and that the losses will disproportionately fall on poorer districts. A recent Los Angeles Times editorial said of the budget, "the only losers, aside from California's future, are cities, counties and local schools, which were fleeced in return for promises of future protection."
Higher education is faring only marginally better. The tripartite system, which consists of the University of California, California State universities and community colleges, is already overworked and facing an influx of new students.
According to Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, the state has a history "of using students as cash-cows when finances go bad," with this year being no different. Undergraduate fees to attend a UC in the fall are up 14 percent and a 20 percent boost for out-of-state and graduate students. Since 2002, fees will have skyrocketed 60 percent for undergrads. To make matters worse, the tuition hikes are coupled with a 7 percent decline in funding for UC (16 percent in the last four years), in exchange for promises of financial predictability in the future.
And Schwarzenegger proposed to send 7,600 UC-eligible freshmen (and thousands more CSU-eligible students) to community colleges for two years before transferring into the four-year system, breaking a forty-year pledge to accept all eligible students. In last-minute budget negotiations, Democratic leaders persuaded Schwarzenegger to restore funding for higher education. But the restored money is likely to help only a small portion of those qualified students already denied admission because, with the budget finalized in late July, such students had little choice but to make alternate plans.
Schwarzenegger did not create this mess; he inherited it. He grabbed the helm of California's sinking fiscal ship and has tried to right it. But California's beleaguered educational system suffers as Schwarzenegger refuses to budge on his disingenuous "no-tax" pledge.
In times of economic hardship, cuts are necessary. The CTA's deal to accept $2 billion rather than $4 billion for K-12 schools, while harmful to education, may well have prevented even deeper cuts in healthcare. But the debate should not be about whether old people or young people should suffer more. It should be about making everyone suffer the least.
In May 2004, Field Poll, 62 percent of Californians (and a plurality of Republicans) said that taxes will have to be raised to resolve the state's budget deficit. But the Golden State's golden boy refuses to contemplate inconveniencing the affluent. Instead, the governor is borrowing billions, deferring debts, and betting on an improved economy. All the while California's students endure undeserved hardship.