We Need to Stop Being Cheap About Education

Tough times or not, our state has a large economy, but we are not paying proportionally to meet the needs of our educational system and this will only make us weaker in the future.

We have been in a recession for a couple of years now.  I would presume that virtually everyone reading this has been impacted, or at the least knows someone who has suffered from our economic downturn. I know, it would seem like this subject has been talked to death. I have definitely written on the subject previously. This time my concern will be more sociological in nature and the choices we appear to be making.

I want to start by throwing some facts in your direction. (http://cbp.org/publicastions/education_land.html)

  • California ranks 46 in the country for spending per K-12 student at $8,908; the national average is $11,764.
  • California ranks 47 in the country for percent of personal income spent on K-12 education at 3.37%; the national average is 4.29%.
  • California ranks 50 in the country for K-12 students per teacher at 20.5; the national average is 13.8.

I guess it should come as no surprise that California’s K-12 students rank 46-48 (depending on the study you look at) for academic achievement and standardized testing performance.  When you consider that even in these challenging times California’s economy ranks as roughly the 10th largest in the world these are embarrassing statistics. 

I have heard from others that “we just need to cut the fat.”  It has been 4 years since the start of the “great recession” and I am confident that the fat has been cut.  What is left is only the quality and scale of the educational program we deliver to our children. 

It should be noted that if you look up the numbers for all states you will find that plus or minus 1-2 positions, spending across the country tracks very closely with academic performance.  I guess it is no surprise therefore that our performance ranks at 46 out of 50 since that is where the spending also falls. (www.nea.org/assets/docs/.../NEA_Rankings_and_Estimates010711.pdf

Pre-1978 our educational system was funded largely by property taxes but Prop. 13 changed all that.  Prop. 98 was passed in 1988 as an effort to create a funding baseline in response to the issues created by Prop. 13.  

With the addition of more and more entitlement and service programs from the state, Prop. 98 appears more like a ceiling than a baseline in application.  Local property taxes now make up approximately 20% of the education budget and the balance comes mostly from the state general fund. 

The general fund is primarily built from personal income taxes, sales taxes and vehicle fees.  The first two in the aforementioned list are extremely volatile depending on economic conditions making this a very unstable way to fund public education. 

I would suspect that most of what I have said to this point is not new.  During the last 30-35 years, public education in California has taken a nose dive both in funding and performance.  Whether you wish to blame Prop. 13 at this point is moot. 

During this same period we have added a host of state funded entitlement and service programs.  Some of these programs include Medical-Cal, prescription drug assistance, hospice care, disability services, in home nursing; the list goes on and on.  I bring up these programs because I am concerned about our society as a whole and the choices we now appear to be making. 

For most our western history, during tough times adults have always made personal sacrifice for the sake of their children and their children’s future.  I suspect that a cultural anthropologist would tell me that this behavior actually dates to well before modern history.

So here we are in the largest economic down turn in the U.S. in 70 years, and look at the choices we are making.  During the last 30-35 years, state funding for public education has continued to slide while we have continued to add to the entitlement and support programs for our elderly. 

I know, these programs have seen budget cuts over the last few years as well, but the proportion of the state budget they consume is significantly higher now than 3 decades ago.  Obviously, cutting these programs impacts members of our society who are least able to find other resources or defend themselves, but the choice still concerns me.

The per-child level of funding that the State of California is providing to public schools is currently at roughly the same level it was in 1999.  If you compound all the San Diego County COLA (Cost Of Living Adjustments) for the last 11-12 years you get a 27% rate of inflation. 

I know that in 1999 I was paying $1.54 per gallon of gas for my car and it has more than doubled since then. Food, clothing, utilities, transportation, housing, school supplies and everything else has gone up during the last 12 years. 

I often read articles in which someone is lambasting the quality of public education.  There is no doubt that there was fat to be trimmed, there was no doubt that some of the nice-to-have education programs had to be let go. But if you pay less, you have to expect less.  Funding schools at 1999 levels with 2012 costs means realistically that schools have to provide 20-25% less educational services than they did in even in 1999. 

As a side note: while you may want to blame the state legislature, we should not be blaming the size of government.  California ranks 46 out of 50 states for number of state employees relative to population. We could definitely look at the benefit packages some of them enjoy, but that is a separate conversation.

There is obviously no good answer here. I sure don’t want to imply that after you reach 70 you are disposable so that more resources are available to the young, but sometimes we do have to make tough choices. 

Now I am back to the sociological aspect of this.  If our children are really a priority to us, shouldn’t we be disproportionately protecting that portion of the budget? 

I am the last one who wants to pull the plug on grandma, but tough choices need to be made.  If we allow education to take this big a step backwards for any length of time, our economy and our children will carry the result for decades. 

There are some scary social questions that could be asked here. Have we become a society of selfish adults? Are the members of the “baby-boomer” generation that are now aging, that out of touch with historical social norms? Is living in the moment that much more important than planning and investing in the future and our children who will inherit that future?

Tough times or not, our state has a large economy, but we are not paying proportionally to meet the needs of our educational system and this will only make us weaker in the future. 

As a baby-boomer myself it bothers me that my generation is so consumed in itself that we are letting our children and grandchildren disproportionately pay the long term price. We need to either make tough sacrifices as adults for the sake of our children, or agree to more taxes to ensure the educational system that our children desperately need.

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Craig Maxwell February 14, 2012 at 10:18 PM
"Public education." (United Nations, Happy Birthday, State Worker, Athletic Scholarship, Girlfriend, etc.)
Mel Mann February 15, 2012 at 12:12 AM
Russell, I do not have the current budget for the LMSVSD I recall that In 2008 it was $101M, I would suspect with cuts since then it is closer to $90M now. The district population is between 12-13K last time I saw one of their fact sheets. The aforementioned numbers are in line with the $8,900 per student number. I would suspect that the $29K comes from either a private school or a school doing a lot of independent fundrasing (a practice that varies widely in success depending on the wealth of the local community. I have also seen the numbers indicating that the California teachers are in the top two states for ranking of pay. At the same time, we all know that the cost of living is significant for many of our larger cities. I read once that $40K in San Diego is equal to $29K in many other parts of the country.
Komfort February 15, 2012 at 12:40 AM
Name___________________________ Monthly____ Annual _________District DOBBERTEEN, KATHIE D _______$8,886.97 __$106,643.64____ LA MESA-SPRING VALLEY HOGARTH, WARREN T________ $16,680.00__ $200,160.00____ LA MESA-SPRING VALLEY MUNDEN, DENNIS E__________ $9,620.37__ $115,444.44____ LA MESA-SPRING VALLEY ROYAL, DON G ________________$11,206.81 __$134,481.72____ LA MESA-SPRING VALLEY SUTTON, CYNTHIA_____________ $9,521.62 __$114,259.44 ____LA MESA-SPRING VALLEY http://www.californiansforpensionreform.com/database.asp?vtsearchname=&vtsearchemploy=LA+MESA-SPRING+VALLEY&vtquery=1&vttable=calstrs
Komfort February 15, 2012 at 01:37 AM
"For example, Hogarth’s pension income grew by 2 percent last year, even as teachers in his former La Mesa-Spring Valley School District were directed to cut pink erasers in half to stretch their limited classroom supplies and save money. “I think in times of recession, it’s a normal response to be critical of pensions,” Hogarth said. “If you asked anyone five years ago, I don’t think anyone would have cared.” http://m.utsandiego.com/news/2010/dec/27/educator-pension-crunch-looms/
Russell Buckley February 15, 2012 at 02:17 AM
Pensions are not a separate conversation - as much as you might like them to be. California public sector pensions are the 600 pound gorilla that crowds out many worthwhile programs. Teachers pensions certainly aren't the worst offenders, but if teachers were to accept reasonable pensions - meaning ones costing about the same as in the private sector, we could afford plenty of erasers - and more teachers. But pensions are never on the table during negotiations. The good old boys and girls who benefit most from them, through their unions, have see to that. You are right, people trusted their elected leaders to manage their money in a frugal manner and had no idea how steadily the public sector unions increased both salaries and pensions until the big increases started to break the bank. The Proposition L tax increase in La Mesa may have been the first warning that many of us had locally. The state's inability to balance the budget was another. Once people started to see the imbalance, they started to speak up and get involved. I have nothing against anyone who works in the public sector - they, like those in the private sector, do necessary work. But we must get pensions back in line with those in the private sector if we want to slow our steady trip into the financial abyss.


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