January has become the darkest time of the year for public education in California. Every winter for the last several years we’ve seen the state hand down bad news for public schools as wishful budgets made in the endless summer of wrangling in Sacramento have met the reality of winter’s measly revenue haul.
In December Gov. Jerry Brown announced that the “trigger cuts” written into last fall’s budget would be activated, slashing $1 billion from this year’s spending, including $248 from state support for school transportation, $38 million of that was cut directly from LAUSD, which is suing the state over the cuts.
The New Year did not bring better news. Now Brown, who couldn’t get intransigent Republicans in the legislature to reach an agreement on raising taxes, is saying that the voters must approve his $6.9 billion tax increase plan on the November ballot, including a higher rate for income over $250,000 and a half-cent sales tax hike.
If the ballot measure fails, Brown says, education will have to be cut by another $4.8 billion, likely shaving three weeks of instruction from the school year. Even if his tax plan passes, Brown’s budget will take another $2.2 billion from schools, using a legally questionable budget maneuver. Now the state Legislative Analyst’s Office is questioning Brown’s math, saying his tax hike could generate as little as $4.8 billion.
Our schools have been cut to the bone already. According to parents' group, Educate Our State, California has cut $18 billion from education in the last four years and reduced per student spending by $2,900. The group cites surveys that show California ranked 44th in per pupil spending by the states in 2008-2009, before the recent rounds of cuts. We are doing without nurses, librarians, plant managers, art teachers, math and literacy coaches, assistant principals and classroom supplies. The list goes on and on. We simply can’t sustain this endless yearly cycle of cuts without doing serious harm to California’s future.
The governor is betting that he can make Californians see religion on tax increases if he presents them with these stark choices: either taxes go up or the school year is shortened by three weeks, busing will end, fewer students will go to community college or university and families and students will have to bear the full cost of a higher education.
Brown thinks that he can use this moment to teach voters that government does some things worth paying for, even if it means we - and not just some other guy - will have to pay for it. Like King Solomon, he hopes we’ll notice we are going to kill the baby by fighting over it and will make the right choice.
Ultimately, I think the real solution is a revision to Proposition 13, one that allows commercial property to be taxed at market rates. While we’re at it, we need to return democracy to our legislature by reestablishing majority rule for passing taxes as we did through a ballot measure last year for passing a budget. Otherwise the state will continue to be held hostage by a minority party wielding undue leverage over our future.