Comments in Response to Education Cuts Blog in Voice of San Diego!

Please read the Voice of San Diego blog below written by Jim Miller in response to one of their articles about cuts to education and “Race to the Top” funding.

Then, click on the blue box at the bottom to chime in on the discussion.  The more voices we have out there on these issues the better!



Recently in the “Schooled” blog a post entitled “Two Different Bids for More School Money” begins by observing that, “Almost everyone wants more money for schools right now. The debate is over how to get it.”
This “debate” is then framed as a battle between two competing camps: “Some San Diego parents are pushing California to change its laws for a shot at a second dose of stimulus money. … The school board is also interested in more money, but it may push California in another direction, nudging the state to look at new or different taxes.”
This piece then goes on to present the two sides, parents versus union and school board leaders and ends by asking readers, “Should California be racing to the top with new laws – or balancing its books with new taxes? Or both? Or neither?”

My first response, as a parent, a relative of two elementary school teachers, a San Diego City College professor, and a proud member of my union (the American Federation of Teachers) is that this framing is an arbitrary, ideologically loaded false dichotomy.

It is typical of the current discourse about education that pits teachers against students and parents in an effort to create an all-too-easy narrative of victims and villains while ignoring the larger social context.

That aside, the central problem with the suggestion that “Race to the Top” funds would help plug budget gaps is that after $18 billion in public education funding reductions during the past two years, it’s a ridiculous proposition to think that $500 million in one-time funds (if we got it all) would even come close to addressing the problems of our schools.

California ranked 47th in the nation in per pupil spending in K-12 before the next round of cuts. We spend more money on prisons than we do on higher education. We are racing to the bottom in the service of Grover Norquist’s “no new taxes” pledge that each member of the Republican minority in the legislature must sign to win a primary election.

We are mortgaging our future and tearing up the social contract in the Golden State to protect the interests of the richest people and corporations in the richest state in the richest country in the entire world. That is the reality we face.

While we have laid off thousands of academic and classified employees across the state, increased class sizes by as much as 35 percent, and cut arts, music, and sports, the top 1 percent of earners in California (which has nearly doubled their share of income over the last 20 years) has not been asked to sacrifice a penny. While we prepare to fire teachers to make up the budget gap, we refuse to tax oil companies making record profits.
The proposed taxes on oil extraction, tobacco sales, and vehicle registration that were penciled out of this year’s budget cost the state $2.5 billion in revenue. As Jean Ross of the California Budget Project said of this year’s budget, “When it came down to choosing between benefits for the state’s largest and most powerful corporations or education and health care for California’s children and youth, the corporations won.”

Race to the Top (RTT) funds are surely not a serious solution to a budget crisis of mammoth proportions and the state bill changing California laws to seek that money may indeed make the financial strain worse.
The education secretary has made it clear that states won’t get funds if they include language that makes the reforms contingent on funding. Hence, if the state, counties and local districts are required to continue with any RTT programs without the funding promised, they will have to cut from services and programs that are already in place and that are already underfunded. This would add to our financial strain, not ease it.

The centerpiece of the bill would link teacher evaluations and compensation to standardized tests. A recent brief by the Century Foundation outlines multiple reasons why this is a dubious proposition. The most compelling of them includes the fact that most state data systems are inadequate and not designed to measure the effectiveness of teachers.

The brief also notes that the data would only mean anything if the students were randomly assigned first to schools and then to teachers. This, of course, is impossible to do.

Aside from the problems with the collection and validity of data, the Century Foundation observes that the competition created by merit pay systems undermines one of the best practices-teachers learning from each other to solve pedagogical challenges. Indeed, it encourages the opposite practice-competing to “beat out” your lesser colleagues for better pay.

Finally, the brief underlines that “the consensus is very strong that the No Child Left Behind Act’s testing mandate has narrowed instruction too much already at the expense of art, music, social studies and foreign language instruction.” RTT will give us more of the same bad practices.

When it comes to the heavy hand in favor of charter schools endorsed by RTT, a recent study has shown that only 17 percent of charter schools produced higher gains than traditional public schools and 37 percent did worse with the rest doing about the same. This is hardly a slam-dunk case for the charter school as panacea.

In sum, the case for RTT is heavy on business model dogma and sweeping generalizations but is based on little research. Its likely passage will add to the educational bureaucracy, do little to improve educational outcomes and possibly further financially burden our schools when they can least afford it.

Imposing this kind of punitive, ill-considered reform on California’s schools in the midst of one of the largest budget disasters in state history without doing a single thing to fix the budget crisis is a cynical exercise in political posturing. We are fiddling while Rome burns.

— JIM MILLER, AFT Political Action VP
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