Taking control

Mobilizing to challenge ARnie’s misguided education cuts

By Peter Dreier 05/29/2008

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Like many students in the Pasadena Unified School District (PUSD) and across California, my 11-year old daughters Amelia and Sarah spent much of the past week making posters opposing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s draconian budget cuts for public schools: “We Like Our Schools.” “Arnold: Don’t Terminate Our Teachers” and “Cuts Hurt Kids.”

These signs will be displayed Saturday at a “Save Our Schools” march that will begin at 10 a.m. at Blair Baccalaureate Magnet School and end at a Memorial Park (Walnut and Raymond Streets) rally around 11 a.m. that will include music, food, and speakers.

Similar activities have been happening elsewhere. More than 4,000 teachers, parents and students recently packed the stands of Mission Viejo High’s outdoor stadium. Hundreds of their counterparts held a rally at Alhambra’s school district headquarters. In San Jose, students handed out postcards urging the governor, “Please don’t kidnap my dreams.” Parents lined Alameda’s main streets with trash cans, while students stood in them, holding up signs: “My future is too valuable to throw away.”

Like many urban districts, PUSD has been traumatized by forces beyond its control. Middle-class “white flight” from the public schools began in reaction to busing in the late 1960s. In the 1980s, immigration brought an influx of Latino students.

In recent years, skyrocketing housing costs have pushed many low-income families — particularly Latinos and African Americans — out of the area, reducing student enrollment, which forced closure of several schools. Even so, about two-thirds of PUSD’s students are low-income, many of them from families where English is a second language.

Nevertheless, PUSD has started to turn around. Test scores have risen, exciting new programs have been put in place and more middle-class families are returning. Under Superintendent Edwin Diaz, day-to-day management has improved, restoring confidence in public schools among local business leaders, city officials and parents.

But like every school district in California, PUSD is still suffering from Proposition 13, the 1978 initiative that slashed property taxes. Since then, school districts have been dependent on the state for funding. Once among America’s best public education systems, California is now one of the worst.
California ranks 46th in the nation in per-student spending, according to Education Week — $7,081 compared with the national average of $8,973. It ranks 49th in the number of teachers per student and 37th in school spending as a percentage of state taxable resources. It is at the bottom in the ratio of counselors, librarians, and school nurses to students.

Now, making matters worse, Schwarzenegger has proposed about $4 billion in inflation-adjusted cuts for public schools. Some districts have already sent lay-off notices to teachers and other personnel. Morale among teachers, frustrated by the chronic job insecurity from the state’s fiscal instability, has plummeted.

If Schwarzenegger’s budget is approved, PUSD administrators will have to slice $13 million from the $120 million general fund budget. Long-term district employees have already received pink slips. Arts and music programs, sports, special math, literacy and other programs may be gone.

In Sacramento, Democrats are prepared to raise taxes to avoid major cuts in schools, as well as healthcare and other services. But although Democrats have majorities in both the state Senate and Assembly, a two-thirds vote in both houses is needed to pass a budget. Protesters thus need to find two Republicans in the 40-member Senate and six Republicans in the 80-member Assembly who will agree to increase taxes. Locally, parents, teachers, and others in Sierra Madre are focusing on GOP legislators — Assemblyman Anthony Adams and Senator Bob Margett — urging them to vote against cuts to public education.

Schwarzenegger’s gimmick to fix the budget deficit is to ask voters to OK borrowing $15 billion from Wall Street against the state lottery’s future earnings. This would simply postpone the budget crisis, but won’t restore the funds being slashed for public schools, much less bring California even close to the national average in per-student spending.

Misguided state tax policies have exacerbated California’s fiscal crisis. According to the California Budget Project (CBP), tax cuts enacted between 1993 and 2006 cost the state $12 billion this year. The largest reductions included motor vehicle license cuts (Schwarzenegger’s ploy to get elected in 2003) and cuts in the corporate tax rate, now a much smaller share of corporate profits.

If corporations paid the same share of their profits in corporate taxes in 2005 as they did in 1981, corporate tax collections would be $7.3 billion higher, says CBP.  As the state’s economy has shifted from goods to services, the state’s tax system hasn’t adjusted. For example,  Internet sales escape taxation. If taxable purchases accounted for the same share of personal income this year as they did 40 years ago, California would collect an additional $15.9 billion in sales tax revenues. In addition, the phase-out of the federal estate tax — President Bush’s give-away to the very rich — will cost California more than $1.1 billion this year.

Like many parents, I’m tired of going to silent auctions and bake sales at my kids’ public schools to make sure there’s enough money to keep the art teacher, purchase musical instruments and library books, and install computers in classrooms. Meanwhile, I’ll be helping my daughters design more protest posters, realizing that this isn’t just about saving our schools, but teaching them a lesson in democracy. 


(For more information about Saturday’s rally, contact Tracy Mikuriya at tracymikuriya@earthlink.net).

Peter Dreier is professor of politics at Occidental College in Los Angeles. A version of this column appeared on www.huffingtonpost.com.


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