Nuttin’ for Christmas

by David L. Brewer III and Scott Folsom –

A week ago Friday and again last Monday the Governor called for a state budget to be out of the legislature and on his desk by Christmas; Christmas was last Thursday.

It is now almost New Years and no budget.

One of us remembers the annual holiday pageant at our daughter’s elementary school. Mrs. Smith’s Third Grade performed the same musical number every year through gap-toothed smiles, singing their hearts out. “I’m Getting Nuttin’ for Christmas, Mama and Papa are Mad…” Well, six million children in the state of California are on the verge of getting Nuttin’ and its time for the Mamas and Papas of the electorate to get fighting mad.

PUBLIC EDUCATION is not about school districts and school boards and teacher’s unions; public education is about six million California schoolchildren. Unless there is a rescue package from Sacramento, children are going to bear about one-half the cost for state government’s economic woes.

All of the proposals “debated” in Sacramento in the recent ‘dead and lame duck’ legislative sessions had huge cuts in the middle of this school year to local school budgets. Cuts affecting your local school, your child’s classroom, every single kid in every school in the state in every legislative district – red or blue. 85% of school district budgets are labor costs; in any scenario teachers and staff will be laid off.

Under the Republican “No New Taxes” proposal – a poorly disguised rewrite of Proposition 76 rejected by the voters in 2005 – California’s children would pay $4.4 billion to balance the budget in the form of reduced education in the second half of this year. LAUSD’s share of this: a whopping $440 million in addition to the $427 million it’s already cut this year. Many schools and school districts could run out of money and be forced to close three weeks early.

Under the Governor’s proposal the hit was only half as bad; fewer schools run out of money – or they run out later. They would close in May or June rather than April. LAUSD’s share: a less whopping $220 million. Half as many teachers and staff will be given pink slips. However that Prop 76 language – with long-term consequences guaranteeing education underfunding in perpetuity – would be the cost for “compromise.”

HERE IS WHAT WE PROPOSE IN THE FIRST DAYS OF THE NEW YEAR: a Self-Help Rescue Plan for the State Budget and California Public Education – a somewhat enlightened and not so draconian two phased approach requiring statesmanship instead of political gamesmanship.

  • REVENUE ENHANCEMENTS.
  • REASONABLE BUDGET REDUCTIONS.
  • SOME FUNDING FLEXIBILITY.

PHASE ONE – Right Away:

  • A return of the Vehicle License Fee – up to $6B per year in state revenue.
  • Perhaps additional revenue increases: a temporary sales tax hike, a loan against future lottery income, etc.
  • Flexibility to temporarily relax of K-3 Class size reduction from 20:1 to 25:1 while reducing 4-5 class sizes from 30+:1 to an average of 25:1 during the period of this crisis – LAUSD’s savings $70 million per year. (Perhaps retaining full day Kindergarten programs at 20:1)
  • Flexibility with categorical mandated funding (e.g., Arts & Music, Professional Development, Physical Education, etc.) allowing school districts some flexibility on how this money is to be spent – with transparency and accountability. These cuts to last for three years or as long as there is a budget deficit crisis, whichever is longer – and a strategy to return to current funding levels and make good the reduction in future years. (There is no magic forecast in three years, school districts are required to budget three years out and this simply recognizes that reality.)

PHASE TWO – Once the Short Term Plan is in Place for This School Year:

Immediately begin to address medium-term solutions for the ’09-’10 state budget – including a 55% threshold for local parcel taxes. Statesmen must sit down with budgeteers and educators and constituents to initiate real budget and education funding reform; the first of which would be a constitutional amendment permitting school districts to place parcel taxes on their local ballots requiring a 55% vote – the same supermajority as the school construction bonds. This returns a measure of local control and local accountability for some school funding.

And California must look to the new administration in Washington for relief, $50 Billion more federal tax dollars are collected in California than are returned in government services. We are not looking for a bailout as much as for equity.

Ultimately, there needs to be long-term solutions. Begin serious discussions addressing the two-thirds majority needed to pass a budget. Need to seriously reconsider provisions of Proposition 13 that caused this state to sink from the top 10 in education funding and performance to 47th in the nation. Realign the state’s budget to a two-year budget process.

The prognosis is not happy, but it need not be dire. The human face we need to put on this is that of the Child and six million California public schoolchildren. Being a kid is not easy; this is a huge adult problem that need not be theirs.

These are hard times. We are not asking for miracles from this budget or this legislative session.

But Christmas is past and the children of this state deserve a lot more than nuttin’.

David Brewer and Scott Folsom

David Brewer is the outgoing Superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, Scott Folsom is a parent leader in LAUSD, a state PTA boardmember and the publisher of the 4LAKids blog and weekly e-newsletter.

Published with permission from Scott Folsom’s 4LAKids.

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