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.