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Some readers can't handle the truth about schools' precarious state

A certain type insists problems such as illegal immigration are to blame for California's school funding woes, but if Prop. 30 and Prop. 38 both fail, the situation is going to get even more dire.

October 13, 2012|Steve Lopez
  • Kindergarten students listen to their teacher at the Bennett-Kew Elementary School in Inglewood.
Kindergarten students listen to their teacher at the Bennett-Kew Elementary… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)

So last week, I wrote about a Palos Verdes businessman who serves on the local school board, where budget cuts have been so devastating he intends to vote for two state ballot propositions that would prevent more slashing, hoping one of them gets the needed 50% plus one.

You'd have thought the poor guy was some kind of monster, judging by reader reaction. More than 90% of the responses dismissed the school board member, and me, as helpless fools. I'm used to being called names, but I was a little surprised to see a volunteer public servant get smacked around. One reader even called him a stooge.

"I need more information" about him, wrote another. "Who is he and what does he do for a living?"

Well, when he's not giving back to his community, he's an executive for a food processing company — all of which was in the column, by the way. He sees public education as a factory that produces future taxpaying employees who will benefit all of us. He's heartbroken about the budget cuts he's had to make, with more on the way if the November propositions both fail. Prop. 30 is Gov. Jerry Brown's baby and Prop. 38 is the offspring of civil rights attorney and multimillionaire Molly Munger, whose TV attack ads on Prop. 30 may doom both propositions and burn the very kids she's trying to rescue.

VOTER GUIDE: 2012 California Propositions

I'll admit — as did the subject of that column, by the way — that there are good reasons for Californians to be sick and tired of government by initiative and angry about the failure of state leaders to lead. I'd have preferred more radical fixes for the endless revenue roller coaster, and Brown didn't help his chances of selling Prop. 30 when he signed an $8-billion bill to start building a high-speed-rail line that voters have soured on.

But there's a reason parents and educators in school districts large and small are worried sick. If one of the props passes — and the odds aren't great — they'll be able to limp forward without more damage. But if both fail, six million K-12 students will take another whipping in January.

Despite that, I got the usual seething contempt for the idea of spending another red cent on a losing cause. Teachers are lazy and their union bosses are greedy, my unusually crabby readers insisted. Legislators are drunken spenders, school districts are inept, students are brain-dead and parents are asleep. So the hell with all of them, say the grave-dancers, even if the truth is that California students have made significant gains in recent years.

"Ask your illegal alien buddies to kick in the money," said one reader.

If only I had a dollar for every email like this, I could personally donate the $6 billion that Prop. 30 is supposed to generate annually.

No doubt illegal immigration is a challenge for schools. But I can't fix that, the federal government won't fix it, and powerful forces — on both the left and the right — have an economic or political interest in keeping things as they are. So let's move on.

"The state budget has increased every year since 2010," said one reader, but "there are no massive budget cuts happening."

Actually, the state general fund budget was $91.5 billion in 2010-11 (Gov. Schwarzenegger's last budget) and it's $91.34 billion this year. In 2007-08, the budget was $102.9 billion, so there have been lots of cuts and you don't have to look far to see them.

As for readers who love telling me our taxes are among the highest in the nation, and that government spending has ballooned beyond reason, two points:

State and local taxes are pretty high — the state finance department puts California 11th in the country, and 19th if you add fees to the burden. But the state spends almost the same amount today, per $100 of personal income, as it did in Ronald Reagan's last year as governor.

Another beef was that teachers and other public employees are robbing us blind with bloated retirement packages, and I'm scolded about this routinely, despite having written many times about the need for public employee pension and healthcare benefit reform. But teachers perform an invaluable public service, contribute to their own retirement funds, and don't get Social Security checks, which can't be ignored.

For those who insist California school budgets are bloated, John Mockler, a consultant who's helping Brown push Prop. 30, told me the state has 31,000 fewer teachers than it did three years ago, and 45,000 fewer support staff. In non-teaching staff, California ranks 49th out of 50 states in staff-to-student ratios. We have a 30% higher student-to-teacher ratio than the national average, a 26% higher student-to-administrator ratio, and an 80% higher student-to-counselor ratio.

In the Claremont Unified School District, Sam Mowbray, a Republican member of the school board, saw no option but to vote in favor of endorsing Prop. 30 earlier this month. He told me he's not happy about higher taxes and wishes the state would permanently fix the school funding problems, but in the interim, the fat's already been cut and the next swing of the ax could mean pay cuts, larger class sizes and other miseries.

As for the Prop. 30 tax increase that has so many folks screaming? Aside from an income tax increase for seven years for individuals who make more than $250,000 and for families who make more than $500,000, there'd be a quarter-cent sales tax increase for four years.

That means that if you buy a cup of coffee and a doughnut for $4, you'll owe an additional cent. Six million kids, the future of the state, would appreciate the sacrifice.

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