Guest Viewpoint: The ‘new normal’ in public education
By Kimberley Beatty
Is underfunded public education the “new normal”? Ever since Proposition 13 was passed in 1978, placing a 1 percent cap on real estate assessed values and requiring a two-thirds vote for tax increases, communities and schools have struggled to replace the overnight loss of 60 percent of their property tax revenues. The state backfilled with general fund revenue that eventually supplied 60 percent of school funding. But now students had to compete with lobbyists for corporate and other special interests that continually vied for competitive advantage tax breaks and other special treatment. Raiding the students’ piggy bank was also an easier alternative for cities and counties looking to fund projects and services. Redevelopment agencies were a perfect example.
Unfunded voter initiatives such as construction bond projects and the Three Strikes Law that ballooned the prison population also diverted general fund revenue, as well as the exploding state health care costs for the poor and disabled.
The 1988 Proposition 98 was meant to stabilize school funding and guarantee that a minimum portion, roughly 40 percent, of combined property tax and state general fund revenue went to K-12 and community colleges. But that floor quickly became a ceiling as accounting gimmicks redefined programs to come under the education umbrella and moved expenditures out of the general fund calculation.
In 2001, our family transplanted from the Howard County School System in Maryland to the Poway Unified School District. I was shocked by the lack of basic resources at our local elementary school. Where were the teachers’ aides, art, music and PE teachers, the school librarian, the counselor, the vice principal, and school buses — staples of public schools. I eventually learned the history of California education funding, but little did I know that in the next decade things were going to get a lot worse.
There is a theory that citizens protest, not when they face destitution, but when the difference between their expectations of government and the reality is great. The “new normal” paradigm is a way to quell those expectations. It has shaped many political messages over the last 30 years. In the ‘80s it was used to rationalize the loss of millions of manufacturing jobs to outsourcing. The “new normal” was a service-based economy, where, retooled and retrained, America could retain its economic might without actually making anything. The 1990s Internet bubble was based on a “new normal” of corporate prosperity and high stock values without actually turning a profit. Historically low interest rates fed a “new normal” of NINJA (no income, no job) loans, real estate values that only went up, and collateralized debt obligation (CDOs) that lacked accountability. All of these “new normals” converged into the current Great Recession, bringing about the “new normal” of underfunded government programs and services, including public education.
But since the economic downturn in 2008, a 20 percent reduction in K-12 funding has been coupled with generous tax cuts for corporations. The 2008 and 2009 state budgets included $2 billion worth of tax cuts, mainly going to already profitable multi-million dollar companies and out-of-state corporations. Remember “Ugly Betty”? This outsourced failed TV show was used to justify a $100 million film tax credit in 2009. Despite a recent Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) report that this tax credit is a money loser for the state, it is about to be extended. Never mind that California public education spending is at its lowest level in 25 years, as a share of the state’s economy.
So if school is shortened by 20 days and kindergarten class sizes rise to 50 5-year-olds per teacher, will that be accepted as the “new normal” or will parents, teachers, students and community members rise up in mass protest?
Beatty, a Sabre Springs resident, is vice president for legislation for the Palomar Council PTA.
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