Thursday, November 17, 2011

Cuts Will Trigger Fight for California's Education System

According to The LA Times, California Governor Jerry Brown remains comparatively popular in spite of the fact that his lack of a plan for California, his unwillingness to openly advocate for the reform and revenue that are needed to save social services, and his terrible strategy for capturing a meaningless budget deal are on course to take our state to new lows.

What Brown and legislators, unwilling to have an early confrontation with the Republicans who effectively run the state from their minority position, have given the public is a booby-trapped budget.  They closed their eyes, thought happy thoughts, and envisioned a revenue scenario that everyone told them was delusional, and then based their deal on this, inserting trigger-cuts that will have a huge impact across the state should the revenue not materialise.

And it looks like we’re about to see this play out.  What will be different about this budget will be the cuts to K-12 education.  Early childhood education and public higher education routinely face brutal cuts.  But K-12 has been to some extent insulated from California’s crisis, although I hear every year from my mother how younger teachers are kept on the brink for months and months not knowing if they’ll come back in the fall, and how senior teachers get switched with abandon between grades and subjects, all because budgeting is so unstable and they’re never sure what the state will do.

It’s hard to say how much genuine care for K-12 education has been behind this relative insulation, and how much it results from the protection of the formidable CTA, the state’s most powerful union.  But before anyone starts whining reflexively about over mighty unions, we should remember that the teachers’ unions have helped all of us.  Because if—as the right-wing argument goes—they’re such greedy public employees, they sure do a poor job of bargaining.  Teachers aren’t terribly well-paid relative to the hours they put in (anyone who thinks teachers work eight hours a day, five days a week, nine months a year need a firm reality check), they pay a lot for their health plans, they’re held in contempt by much of the public and subject to almost constant harangues from parents, and often don’t have the support of their administrators. 

What they have managed to do is protect our state’s kids from being in larger and more unruly classrooms, from having their days at school cut (and for some kids, this is the most secure place in their lives), and from losing resources and support staff.  They’ve made state government think twice about whether it wants to take them on every time it ponders a socially immoral round of cuts to public services.  Their official corner might be K-12 education, but teachers’ unions, like unions in general, tend to benefit the state as a whole. 

All that could be set to change.  Because unless Brown and the Democrats start to fight back, we’ll see year after year of retrenchment, which will mean cuts to the only thing left...K-12 and prisons. 

The Republican say that we can maintain a good education system even if we starve that system of revenue and teachers.  They say that the problem is that it’s all inefficient.  That things like class-size, having enough books for all the students in your class, and other such trivial matters don’t really matter.

Class size matters.  I get sick of people whining about how back in the day when they were kids teachers handled big classes just fine.  Several points: our country has been getting steadily less equal for some time, and this brings all kinds of pressures to bear on families who face economic uncertainty; teaching today, because of changes in educational philosophy, a much more rigorous testing regime, and the recognition that they need to take better account of different styles of learning, is a much, much more sophisticated enterprise; and most of the people I’ve heard utter this homily very likely grew up in fairly homogenous communities and attended fairly homogenous schools, descriptions you just can’t apply to many places in California today. 

I’ve spent time between 2007 and 2011 in seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth and eleventh-grade classrooms, in majority-minority and low-income districts in both southern and northern California.  Handling a large number of 12 to 17-year-olds is not something I’d want to do.  And keeping them focussed is one thing...carrying out a lesson plan while dealing with 30-40 teenagers with different interests, needs, learning styles and motivation levels just isn’t feasible.  I’ve very seldom seen it done really well, because it’s just too much to ask of one person. 

We’re already paying the price for disinvestment in education across the board, both at the human level, as people with all the right qualifications struggle to realise their ambitions or even make ends meet on the one hand, and as our state is predicted to face a shortfall of highly-educated and –skilled workers (A Portrait of California). 

But Jerry Brown had better watch out!  Because Robert Birgeneau is breathing down his neck.  Robert who? you might be asking.  UC Berkeley’s Chancellor has demanded that Brown and other officials come to Berkeley’s campus to debate him and students (Birgeneau is trying to make amends for defending police who beat students and faculty on campus last week...his other excuse is that there’s no internet in Asia, where he was travelling to flog UC degrees to international students at the same time that he’s foreclosing opportunities for students in California). 

Birgeneau’s e-mail is somewhere between two and twenty years too late.  Brown is a political coward who is unlikely to take up serious reform...the only thing that could save California by putting the revenue tool back on the table from which the Republicans have snatched it to brandish it as part of their newest anti-tax fetish. 

Teachers’ unions have and will continue to fight actively for the good of schools, and by extension for other public services.  But the University of California should be doing more for the campuses which comprise the state’s flagship institution, for public education of which it is a part, and for the public good which it represents.  Under Birgeneau’s leadership, Berkeley has invested hugely in Operation Excellence and its associated bureaucracy, the premise of which is making a million little cuts that don’t begin to address the long term revenue loss associated with public disinvestment, but which do have a real and painful effect on people who are losing their jobs and departments which are being mangled.  Berkeley should bypass California’s craven executive and write up a series of interlinked propositions that would overhaul the state’s political structure. 

Unlike Operation Excellence’s current role, which is generating more unemployment and under-writing a return to a savage state of nature that the Republican Party is after, this kind of effort might actually merit the name given that it would be contributing to the public good.

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