Opinion By Alejandro Benes | Polticker CA
June 23, 2008 -Back in January, the state's superintendent of public instruction said that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's budget proposal would change what the governor promised would be the "year of education reform" to a "year of education evisceration."
If the governor's proposal comes close to becoming reality, the impact on California schools would be an estimated reduction in funds of $3 to $4 billion. The Legislative Analyst's Office reports: "The Governor's budget provides total K-12 per-pupil funding (PPF) of $11,626 for 2008‑09. This is roughly $300, or 2.6 percent, less than total PPF for 2007-08. In inflation-adjusted terms, the reduction is about double-roughly $600, or 5 percent."
In case you're curious, the National Center for Education Statistics indicates California ranks 25th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia in spending per pupil, behind the U.S. average and behind West Virginia.
Money is important in educating students, but increasingly how the funds are spent becomes significant in the discussion. Take, for example, the following realities, presented in last week's Los Angeles Times by Jaana Juvonen, the lead author of the 2004 Rand Corp. report, "The Challenges Facing the American Middle School," about what's happening in L.A. before any new budget proposal gets adopted:
"These are facts of life for seventh-graders in Los Angeles County public middle schools, according to a new report sponsored by the United Way of Los Angeles: 48 percent are bullied; 13 percent carry a weapon to school; 71 percent do not have a caring relationship with a teacher or another adult at school. Perhaps it's no surprise then that statewide assessments published in May reveal that only 5 percent of the 98 middle schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District meet California's academic standards."
On the same day, the paper reported: "The number of students graduating from Los Angeles public schools has declined for two straight years even as enrollment in the 12th grade has been rising sharply, new state data show. The graduation slump began when California started requiring students to pass an exit exam before they could receive a diploma."
"Statewide," the piece went on, "12th-grade enrollment has been rising for several years, the result of a baby boomlet in the late 1980s. Meanwhile, the number of high school graduates has stayed stagnant."
Perhaps, in time, the polemic will be recast. To a degree, the shape of the debate is similar to the unending argument my business partners and I have at lunch. None of us really contends that we shouldn't pay taxes. We just don't believe (a) that the legislature ought to be in charge of deciding how the cash is spent or, on a good day; (b) how the legislature is spending the money. The problem, I sense from talking to people involved in the school system -- and this includes parents -- is that there is no broad understanding, much less consensus, on how the money should be spent to teach effectively.
To be sure, a reduction of, say, $3 billion would move toward "evisceration" assuming nothing else changes. The question, the facts seem to support, is whether we all need to know a little more -- and become engaged in this debate -- about just how well the schools are doing their job without first worrying about how much we're spending, maybe in the wrong way.