NEW TIMES: How has California public education changed?
When I went to middle school in the San Fernando Valley, Los Angeles Unified School District was one of the top school districts in the country. This was in the late ’50s, early ’60s. Every middle school had wood shop, metal shop, typing. Every high school had wood shop, metal shop, print shop, and auto shop. When I started in San Fernando Valley State College in 1966, my tuition was $50 a semester. I never had to get a student loan—that’s the way education was supposed to be. It was called the Master Plan.
Governor Edmund “Pat” Brown—the only true education governor—had a dream shared by the Legislature that every child in California could go to college if they wanted to. Community college was free; all you had to pay for was books. That was the dream. That dream is dead now. Most middle-class families cannot afford college tuition. The tragedy is that we, the Baby Boomers, had more opportunities then than our children and grandchildren have now.
How have the demands on the education system changed?
The demographic shifts in California over the last 30 years have been very dramatic. When you have districts that are 80 or 90 percent low-income minority students, many of whom do not speak English as their first language, you have huge challenges. These young people need a much longer school day and additional assistance—reading specialists, language specialists, psychologists, nurses, librarians—and we’re at the bottom rung for all of these professionals.
What is wrong with California public education?
There are many excellent teachers and administrators who are up against odds that defy imagination. Think of the number of students who live below the poverty line and how many students we have for whom English is the second language; it’s a totally different landscape than when I started teaching, and certainly different than when I was a student in Los Angeles Unified School District.
The challenges we have in California are such that our funding doesn’t even come close to what we need to educate our population. We’re spending roughly $8,000 annually per student, while states like Rhode Island and New Jersey are spending $17,000 to $18,000 per student each year. And they don’t have close to the demographic issues we have with large numbers of people immigrating from all over the world who don’t speak English. Our teachers are up against it because the funding keeps going down but the challenges keep going up.
Why can’t our schools get the funding they need?
We are gridlocked in Sacramento because in this state we don’t have a true democracy. One-third of the Legislature can defy the will of the other two-thirds. And it’s been that way since 1978 with Proposition 13, when the problems started. Suddenly, we had less money coming into the districts from property taxes and there’s been a gradual decline in funding for our schools ever since. And then when the sales-tax revenue decreased and the tech bubble burst, that was all the funding for the schools. Now there’s a lock on property tax, so we have a school system, which in my day was run by local communities with local property taxes, that’s now in the hands of legislators in Sacramento.
Why does California spend so much less on education than other states?
Two reasons: Proposition 13, which has decreased the property tax revenue, and the economy is in a downturn. Our sales tax, our taxes that would be generated by the tech community, all those revenue sources are diminishing.
Having said that, we would not be in such bad shape had certain measures been passed, such as the oil severance tax. Almost every state has an oil severance tax. When a company extracts oil from the ground, almost every state taxes them and the money goes to schools. The reason we don’t have it is because we’re legislatively gridlocked by the ability of one-third to block the will of two-thirds of the Legislature. When the oil extraction tax came up, every Republican voted against it, including Sam Blakeslee. Another example is the luxury tax—taxing yachts, big-ticket items—which was also blocked by the Republicans in the Assembly and the Senate. That’s why we’re gridlocked; that’s the bottom line. If that were not the case, we would not be in the shape we’re in now.
What could improve the situation?
I think it’s happening now. There’s going to be a ballot measure in November that would undo the two-thirds requirement.
What more can be done?
Systemically, we have to look at Proposition 13. The senior citizen needs an exemption, but corporations and businesses need to start paying their fair share. The systemic issues are hard to deal with because Proposition 13 is a sacred cow. But you can do certain things to bring in property tax revenue without harming such people as low-income homeowners. There must be protections, but I think we need to revisit Proposition 13, as well as the extraction tax, the luxury tax—things that can bring in more revenue.
Frank DePasquale can be reached through the editor at email@example.com.
-- Frank DePasquale - Cambria