Tuesday, March 16, 2010

California's Education Money Market

On March 4, thousands of people across the state marched and gathered in protest as part of the Day of Action to Defend Education, a culmination of determined rallying against budget cuts, fee hikes and various other impediments to education that have taken place consistently since 2002.

Here in the Bay Area, the throng of protesters were in full force: upwards of some 20,000 camped out loudly in front of San Francisco City Hall, the entrances to UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz were blocked in the morning, and a group of activists even took "taking it to the streets" to a whole new level by marching right on to Interstate 880, blocking traffic for more than an hour while waving signs and shouting.

The message was clear and strong: many people in California are fed up with the everlasting education crisis and demand action from the legislators. What is unclear is how it will be attained. After months of picketing, striking and walkouts, many are upping efforts to collaborate with all the major players, starting with local officials.

“I join the thousands of students, parents and teachers across California and here in San Francisco today calling for adequate, equitable education funding for our public schools and universities,” San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom announced on his web site.

Newsom, a candidate for California lieutenant governor, went on to explain that the city has forged new partnerships with public schools and community colleges to guarantee universal pre-school and after-school programs for every child in the community, as well as a place in community colleges. If elected lieutenant governor, Newsom will serve as an ex-officio member on the UC Board of Regents and the CSU Board of Trustees.

While the protests were successful in garnering local attention on the streets and making headlines across the country, the action ironically took place the same day President Obama announced that California did not qualify for the $700 million share in federal Race to the Top funds, the single largest pool of discretionary funding for education reform in U.S. history.

The program, which stressed collaboration between government, union leaders, teachers and parents, has been a dividing point for many. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was a strong proponent for the program and urged all parties to join in the application process, but some critics argued that a federal fix was not the answer for a state with a uniquely complicated system and referenced the widely perceived failure of the No Child Left Behind Act. Many argued that the reason the Golden State missed out on the funds was because of its complicated standards adoption procedures, the resistance to federal reform from union leaders and the decision of several districts not to participate in the application in the program.

For California, the difficulty in securing funds for education is systemic. The state ranks 49th in per-capita spending per student and already faces a $20 billion deficit. The inability to raise revenue without raising taxes has worn down the system considerably, so missing out on package deals like the Race to the Top program are a big blow.

To make matters worse, 188 California schools – 12 of which are in San Francisco – got the news March 8 that they were lowest of the low-performing schools, meaning that they will be required to undergo major changes: they will either be closed, converted to a charter school or undergo a complete overhaul of instruction.

In spite of the recent designation, Newsom referenced high points of city education, but emphasized the need for statewide collaboration. “Despite these difficult economic times, over the last two years and this year, we will have invested $49 million of our city’s rainy day reserve funds in our public schools to stave off teacher layoffs,” Newsom said. “But it’s still not enough. Cities and public school districts can’t do it alone.”

It won’t be revealed until April exactly why we didn’t get a piece of the pie in California, but many people are quick to suggest that one reason is that constant fights over the best fix for education seems to take precedence over adhering to federal standards.

--By Heather Mack


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