by Dan Walters | Sac Bee Columnist
Wednesday, Apr. 07, 2010 -- The depth of California's educational crisis was underscored a few weeks ago when new nationwide test results placed the state's fourth- and eighth-graders at or near the bottom in basic academic skills.
The dismal academic rankings were released just after California failed to qualify for one of the Obama administration's Race to the Top education improvement grants even though it had hurriedly made school governance changes, albeit after some nasty political infighting.
The political climate was so divisive that California could not muster the required level of support for Obama-style reform from school districts, teachers and unions to qualify for a grant. And the atmosphere remains so toxic that California may not even apply in subsequent rounds.
After its brief foray into the quicksand of pedagogic policy, the Capitol is returning to a more familiar political battleground – money.
Unions and other elements of the education establishment that were hostile to the reforms pushed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger with White House support are again chanting their fundamental mantra – that real improvement in California's sorry academic performance requires more money.
State schools Superintendent Jack O'Connell and the union-backed Education Coalition are complaining loudly about what they describe as a $17 billion reduction of state aid in the past two years, and Schwarzenegger's plans for more reductions in 2010-11 as the state continues to confront multibillion-dollar budget deficits.
The Legislature's budget analyst says that per-pupil spending, which was already near the bottom of the states prior to recent cuts, would shrink by nearly $1,000 over three years under Schwarzenegger's new budget.
Teachers, administrators, parents, non-teaching school workers and school board members took turns Tuesday describing the effects of the cutbacks to an Assembly budget subcommittee, everything from rising class sizes and cash-flow shortfalls to reductions in janitorial services and elimination of sports and other activities.
While thousands of words were spoken, Deborah Hearne, a non-teaching employee of West Sacramento's Washington Unified School District, tersely summed up their message: "Give us the money. That's the only solution."
The problem, of course, is that there's no money to give. The state budget is a zero-sum game, and the sum has been shrinking as the worst recession since the Great Depression hammers the state, even with the temporary tax increases enacted last year.
Polls tell us that the voting public values public education and doesn't want it to suffer further. But neither is there any appetite among voters for the broad new taxes that would be needed to avoid big school cuts, especially if the taxes would fall on them.
It's a Gordian knot, and no one has a knife sharp enough to sever it.