It Takes a Village: Changes needed to be made to fund education

by Andy Shapiro, Santa Cruz Sentinel

While drastic times call for drastic measures, California’s recently passed budget is unnecessarily harmful to our schools. In addition to the terribly demoralizing pink slips handed out to an estimated 26,500 teachers, cuts to vital programs including art, music, sports, libraries, counseling, nursing, electives, vocational education, class size reduction and others are being considered by school boards across the state.

Our failure to make children and schools our top priorities is not simply the result of a bad economy; it is also the result of a broken budgetary process and a lack of vision and imagination.

So where do we go from here? In order to ensure that our students receive the education they deserve, it is vital that we find long-term solutions to our state’s budget woes while simultaneously addressing our present crisis.

I would begin by rescinding corporate tax breaks provided in the most recent budget. It is unconscionable that as California is dealing with a $42 billion deficit, multi-state and multi-national corporations will receive new, permanent tax cuts that will cost the state approximately $1 billion this year and $1.5 billion in future years, according to Richard Holober, executive director of the Consumer Federation of California.

Similarly, reforming Proposition 13 so that corporations are periodically reassessed would greatly increase revenues. Prop. 13 was billed as a measure to help homeowners, yet the biggest benefit
has gone to corporations that now pay a much smaller share of the overall tax burden than they paid 30 years ago.

Additionally, it is long past time to tax Internet transactions in the same manner as other transactions, especially as a greater proportion of sales move from brick-and-mortar stores to the Internet. Why should Internet sales that provide little benefit to our communities receive a competitive advantage over local businesses?

Billions more could be raised annually by restoring vehicle license fees and the top state income tax rate to their levels of a decade ago. A windfall profits tax on oil companies is another available option to increase state revenues.

Next, let’s consider how to reform our drug policies and our criminal justice system, especially mandatory minimum sentencing requirements. We spend billions each year incarcerating non-violent offenders. By providing less expensive, more effective alternatives to prison, we could save a great deal of money and reduce recidivism among drug offenders. Giving judges more autonomy with sentencing would also reduce criminal justice costs, particularly our immense prison expenditures.

Additionally, we could realize great savings by eliminating or suspending standardized testing in all grades except fourth, eighth and 11th. That would also allow more time for instruction. Schools could replace standardized testing with other measures of accountability that would be far more effective and far less costly. I plan to write about this subject in more detail in a future column.

Providing school districts greater flexibility in some areas would also be helpful. The state authorized some additional flexibility in the recently enacted budget, but more could be done. For example, if school districts were permitted to use their instructional materials reserves and their facilities funds as they choose, school boards would be able to save some of the programs they plan to cut and rehire a number of the teachers recently given their pink slips. While some state and federal mandates are sensible, others ought to be suspended during this economic crisis.

Few meaningful budget reforms, including those suggested above, are likely to be enacted unless we eliminate the anti-democratic two-thirds requirement to pass our state’s budget. Changing this archaic rule is essential if we want our state’s budget to better reflect the values of the majority of Californians.

Ultimately, the budget is about choices that will determine our future. We can continue putting nonviolent offenders behind bars or we can keep more teachers on the front lines educating our children. We can continue to give tax breaks to corporations that don’t need help or we can retain music, art, sports and other programs that enrich our children’s lives and make them well-rounded human beings. Even during this severe recession, it is important to remember that investing in our schools is investing in our future.