An Education In Poor Policy

The entire political world and beyond, knows California is in a serious budget crisis. Indeed, estimates of the deficit range from $10 billion to nearly double that figure.

While there are clear long-terms solutions to the situation, such as a real budget cap, there can be no question about the short-term steps that must be taken: every department of government must look to eliminate unnecessary spending, waste, fraud and abuse. Since all government programs are in the same leaking boat, all of them have a vested interest in acting as a team to make sure the ship can be righted in the short term. There is really no other choice and all must keep in mind that a bankrupt government is not a compassionate government.

Sadly, the education lobby does not see it that way.

Our current California's Superintendent of Public Instruction, Jack O'Connell, apparently has no intention of playing team ball. O’Connell has been telling everyone who will listen that the Governor’s budget will “cut” education. Actually, the Governor’s revised budget fully funds education under Prop 98 – thereby making education the only large government program that will have more funds this year than last – and large it is.

The proposed Education Budget is $57.6 billion and represents nearly half of all state funding. That is a figure, less inflation, that equals the entire state budget of the early ‘90s. Nevertheless, in the twenty years since Prop 98 has been signed into law guaranteeing funding growth, the performance of our schools is something less than desirable.

Indeed, that investment has bought us only 46th place in the marketplace of American education. In 2007, our 4th graders earned 48th place in reading and 47th in math. Our eighth graders were 48th in reading and 45th in math.

When O’Connell recently was asked about California’s current education policy, he was unable to answer some questions and, get this, deferred questions to the President of the California Federation of Teachers. That prompted at least one state newspaper to say that O’Connell should be on the union payroll. Such a cozy relationship has prompted others to refer to O’Connell as “Union Jack.”

If, according to the old saying, government is too important to be left to politicians, certainly, education is far too important to be left to politicians.

Serious reform of our education system is needed. Tops on the list of those reforms is to devolve power back to local school boards. It is folly to think that education in California – which boasts a single county (the County of Los Angeles) that is larger than 42 states can be delivered – let alone efficiently – with a one-size-fits-all program.

School superintendents agree and have raised their voices for many reforms including the reduction in the number of mandates. O’Connell refuses to support their local needs and the union’s boss told us why. She literally said that superintendents could not be trusted with schools’ “income.” Translation, we will not compromise on categorical mandates, however wasteful, because they guarantee even larger funding, i.e. fund it or lose it. In that way, even unused programs ensure more union members.

So much for putting students first.

Recently, Republican leaders offered a series of reforms that would have eased budget requirements, allowed schools greater local control and minimal funding disruption. One bill would have allowed local schools to spend carryover funds from categorical block grants they have received for other programs funded by categorical block grants in the coming budget year.

Another bill would have allowed school districts to spend funds set aside for school maintenance on other critical needs, except to expand existing programs or increase salaries. Yet another would have reduced from 62 to 6 the number of categorical programs, which represent over 30 percent of education funding in the state.

All those bills would have allowed local schools to make local decisions as to how best to meet the needs of their students – as opposed to administrators and union reps attempting to fit the students in Oakland in the same education box as students from Beverly Hills.

Union Jack’s performance list past month, however, made it clear that education is rooted in union policies more than education policy.

We must do better. The three R’s of our education policy should be Reform, Reform, and Reform.

After all, even one child’s education is a terrible thing to waste.