Governor Schwarzenegger is once again taking heat, and this time, it’s from the education establishment.
Howls of protest have greeted his new budget proposal, with many educators claiming that Schwarzenegger is shortchanging education. This cacophony of condemnation directed at the governor is not only misguided, but fails to address real problems with education in California.
That California is somehow skimping on education spending is an exaggeration to say the least. According to EdSource Online, California’s per-pupil spending in the 2002-03 budget year was $7,244, which is close to the national average of $7,920 per pupil. This year, the state is projected to spend $10,201 per student.
And California is certainly not making education a low priority if we compare education spending to the total budget. As the Los Angeles Daily News reported on May 17, 42 percent of the state’s 2005-06 General Fund will go toward education. And this percentage has only increased over the past few years. This year’s budget contains an increase of $3 billion since last year.
This generous funding of public schools is apparently insufficient for many education groups. Kerry Clegg, spokesperson for the California School Boards Association, denounced the new budget, saying, “You cannot expect schools to prepare our students to compete in the global economy, and then fund it with a Third World budget.” That the $61.5 billion being spent on education is the approximate size of a Third World country’s entire budget appears to be something Clegg cannot appreciate.
Indeed, much of the hyperbolic caterwauling accompanying Schwarzenegger’s education budget centers around the fact that he did not include a larger increase for education spending. Barry Kirschen, co-president of the Greater Santa Cruz Federation of Teachers, called $3 billion in extra funds for schools “a pittance,” and Vacaville Unified School District Trustee Jay Yerkes claimed that the state still owed schools an additional $8.6 billion.
All this complaining could easily be written off as special-interest politics if it were not for the fact that the leadership in the California legislature agrees. On May 16, State Senate President Pro Tempore Don Perata declared, “I believe there is nothing more important for this budget, our children and our future than, at the least, restoring the $2 billion cut from education (made) last year.” In this case “cut” translates to mean “less of an increase than we wanted.”
Of course, it is much easier said than done to throw around $2 billion, especially when the state is already expected to run a $5 billion deficit. The current increase in education spending comes largely from an unexpected windfall of $4 billion in revenue. Education spending is something that stays static or grows; it never decreases. Thus, to increase education spending on an unpredictable surplus is an invitation to even larger budget shortfalls in the future.
The solution of Don Perata, and of many in the education establishment, is the usual one in California — Soak the rich. Perata suggested that increasing taxes on the wealthiest Californians would allow the legislature to restore the $2 billion in “cuts” to education. But it is unlikely that the rich will continue to foot the bill for ever larger increases in state spending, and will simply leave the state, something that is happening with increasing frequency.
What would be much more effective is if the legislature instead focused on reforming the education system and making it more efficient. California ranks 30th in per pupil spending among all U.S. states, yet we rank dead last in terms of students per teacher. That indicates that a large part of education funding is being diverted away from the classroom. Finding where that money is going and putting it into the classroom, where it belongs, should be the primary goal of our elected officials.
Such a plan would require a good deal of hard work and a willingness to buck education interest groups. Unfortunately, these are two things that our legislators are not good at. Combined with the California electorate’s propensity to throw money at education in the hope of fixing it, it appears unlikely that fiscal responsibility will rule the day on this issue. Hopefully, Sch- warzenegger will have the good sense to stand firm on this issue, and not capitulate when his poll numbers inevitably drop.
Sean Paroski, whose column appears every Thursday, is a senior applied mathematics major.