January 16, 2019

California kids deserve better

Just before Mother’s Day, I joined mothers from around Los Angeles at a rally intended to send a message to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger: “What moms really want is a decent education for our children.”

The event was organized by a handful of moms from my son’s Beverlywood public school, Castle Heights Elementary, who were outraged by the governor’s proposed cuts to public school education funding.

“We thought, ‘What can a few moms do?’ said Maria von Hartz Shapiro, one of the rally organizers. “Well, we can make some noise.”

About 300 people gathered on Wilshire Boulevard, across the street from LACMA, bearing placards that read, “Cuts Hurt Kids” and shouting slogans like, “We are moms, don’t you know/Don’t let Arnie take the dough.”

The “dough” referred to the $4.8 billion the governor had threatened to slash from California’s public education budget because of a projected $16 billion state budget shortfall. To make up the deficit, Schwarzenegger proposed across-the-board cuts of 10 percent.

For the Los Angeles Unified School District, which includes Castle Heights Elementary, the cut would have translated to $460 million — the equivalent of closing 22 high schools or axing 5,750 employees. A cut of that magnitude would guarantee larger classes, neglected libraries, littered hallways and fewer qualified teachers wanting to enter or remain in the profession.

The Castle Heights moms enlisted support from California Assembly Speaker-elect Karen Bass, and the rally took place in front of her office building.

“Karen Bass says ‘no’ to a cuts-only budget,” staffer Solomon Rivera said at the event. “She feels it is unacceptable to get out of this dilemma simply by cutting.”

Parents at the rally also had plenty to say to the governor.

“We are horrified by the idea that our state can be one of the lowest in what we spend for kindergarten through 12th-grade education, and yet can talk about making cuts,” said Judy Reichel, a parent from the Culver City School District. “It’s not an accident that Silicon Valley happened in California. For many years, we had some of the finest schools in the nation.”

“Every child in the state deserves a good quality public education,” Castle Heights parent Deborah Anisman-Posner said. “It’s very shortsighted to cut these kids off. We’ll all pay the price in the future. We could have paid the car tax to help distribute the load.”

“This gets me so mad. It’s ridiculous,” said Enola Lipaz, a parent at Canfield. “[Schwarzenegger’s] whole election platform was about education.”

Apparently, the governor took heed of the many people across the state who expressed similar sentiments. Last week, he submitted a revised budget, which restored $1.8 billion in state education funding. The new budget relies on borrowing $15 billion using bonds that would be repaid by future lottery sales. Voters would need to approve this funding mechanism in a November ballot measure.

Even with these provisions, California’s public education system is not out of the woods, according to State Superintendent of Public Education Jack O’Connell.

“I welcome [the governor’s] new proposal…. But to say that education is fully funded in this budget is an overstatement,” O’Connell said in a press release. “Schools still must absorb the 10 percent cut made to specific programs like class size reduction, counselors, and targeted remediation programs…. This scheme does not address the long-term funding needs of our schools.”

As of press time, Los Angeles Unified School District was still crunching the numbers to determine what the new proposal would mean for the district, which must finalize its budget by the end of June.

But here’s what we do know: The National Education Association (NEA) currently ranks California 29th in the nation for per-pupil spending. According to the Education Week Research Center, however, California sinks to 43rd in per-pupil spending when regional cost differences are accounted for. That’s lower than Alabama and Arkansas. And the NEA shows that nationally, we have the second-worst teacher-to-student ratio, with among the largest class sizes in the country.

Parents already spend countless hours and dollars on gift wrap sales, auctions and other fundraisers to pay for programs like art and music, which otherwise get shortchanged. And at schools where parents don’t have the luxury of time or money, the children must do without. But bake sales alone can only go so far.

The state budget process is complicated and hard to understand. And there are a lot of worthy programs vying for a piece of the ever-shrinking pie. But a strong public education system is in everyone’s best interests, whether they have children in public school, private school, out of school or no children at all. Because as Reichel said: “The foundation of our democracy is public education.”