California voters will face a stark choice in November when they decide whether to approve Governor Jerry Brown’s new budget proposal, which stipulates either raising income taxes for the wealthy and temporarily increasing sales tax by half a percent, or eliminating $5.3 billion from state welfare and public school expenditures.
Even if voters approve the tax increases, which are expected to bring in around $35 billion over five years according to administration estimates, Brown’s proposal would still cut nearly $1 billion each from MediCal and CalWorks and over $1 billion from the state’s public education system. If voters reject the tax increase, however, a $5.4 billion trigger cut will be enacted, with California children receiving the brunt of the impact; the vast majority of the savings–4.8 billion–would be taken from K-12 education.
“[Governor Brown's proposal] either means that voters approve new taxes, in which case we’re able to maintain the status quo, or voters reject the taxes, in which case we make even more draconian cuts in the education system,” said David Plank, executive director of the Stanford Policy Analysis for California Education and professor in the School of Education. “Neither of them is a cheerful scenario for schools because the present situation in public schools is pretty awful, given the cuts they sustained over the past four years.”
The measure targeting education is intended to close a $9.2 billion shortfall in the state budget this year, down from $26.6 billion last year. According to Plank, these cuts are necessary as a result of the state government’s history of fiscal mismanagement.
“The problem that we all face is that we have pasted together budgets…that are basically optimistic assumptions,” Plank said. “Governor Schwarzenegger, in his first year, issued $15 billion worth of bonds to cover a deficit. Those have to be paid back.”
If voters reject Brown’s tax increase initiative and another $4.8 billion is slashed from public schools, Plank foresees big changes in the classroom experience for California children.
“The estimate I’ve seen is that [the trigger cut] amounts to three weeks off the school year. You’re talking about a genuinely radical change in the educational experience,” Plank said. “If the cuts go through, we’re certainly testing the bottom of [the school spending] distribution. We’re headed for 50th pretty quickly.”
As a result of annual cuts over the past several years to the state education system, California public school districts are suffering. An Education Week study released on Jan. 8 rated California an “F” for school spending, as the state slipped to 47th in the nation in per-pupil spending.
But it may not even be the cut’s magnitude that troubles school administrators most.
“The greatest challenge is uncertainty: will the [trigger cuts] happen? And will they be at a scale that is what you expected?” said Kevin Skelly, superintendent of the Palo Alto Unified School District. “That uncertainty makes it very difficult to plan. It makes it very difficult to work with bargaining salaries and benefits, and it puts everybody on edge.”
In the uncertainty over the state’s future finances, Skelly’s school district is bracing for the worst.
“We have what we called structural deficit: we’re spending more money than we anticipate bringing in,” Skelly said. “Fortunately, if you look around the state, many school districts have built up a reserve that is there in case of these cuts. We’ll spend our reserve.”
Over the last four years, the Palo Alto Unified School District has cut its per-student spending by over $1,000. This cut, Skelly said, has a large impact in the classroom for both students and teachers.
“When you add more kids to classes, you have to hire fewer teachers [to deal with cost challenges],” he said. “But when the budget is 85 percent people, it has to come down to the number of teachers you have. And that has an effect on teacher morale, teacher experience and offerings you can [provide] for students.”
While California students are facing a funding proposal that could shave three weeks off their school year, state Republicans and teachers’ unions are blasting Brown’s proposal, saying it uses students politically in order to raise taxes.
“Clearly, there is a political element to [the proposal],” Skelly said. “But the other piece of it is that [Gov. Brown's] options are very limited. K-12 education is one of…few.”
Plank said he agrees that Gov. Brown’s options are limited, but questioned what he called the “Republican intransigence on taxes” while the two sides negotiated the budget.
“The polling shows that voters will approve tax increases if the taxes go to schools, so Republicans are saying, ‘[Gov. Brown] has put schools at risk.’ Well, schools have already been hammered,” Plank said. “It’s not like Republicans are defending the children in schools; [they're] opposing the tax increases.”
Contact Edward Ngai at firstname.lastname@example.org.