Friday, October 26, 2012

Dear California, Please Pass Prop 30

Dear California,

Please pass Proposition 30 on November 6.

If you haven’t consulted your ballot yet, this is the measure proposed by the Governor which raises revenue through a combination of increases to income and sales taxes.  The measure promises that resulting revenues will be directed primarily to K-12 education, with community colleges receiving a much smaller cut.  But the ramifications of passing or not passing Proposition 30 neither begin nor end with K-12 and CCC funding.  In providing funding to some sectors of our education sphere, Prop 30 will avert drastic cuts to higher education and stave off a range of as yet uncertain impacts on our classrooms.  It will also send a signal to our representatives that we prioritise our institutions of learning, and value the social and economic work that they do in our community.

This is an appeal based not just on your status as a voter, but on a member of one of our state’s branches of government.  After all, the dozen or so measures that have been on Californians ballots this year will likely have a far greater impact on our state’s future than will the bills passed by our increasingly-disempowered legislature.  As constitutional amendments, many of these initiatives will make policy which is beyond the reach of the traditional branches of government.  Our legislature and Governor have essentially lost the ability to raise revenue, and can only make cuts—cuts which fall in large measure on those who are too young to have a voice in our affairs, those who are too sick to care for themselves, and those who—through systemic inequality, a lack of an opportunity to build up economic reserves, or pure bad luck—are too economically insecure to provide fully for themselves.  Voters alone retain the power—in a multi-party system in our state—to raise revenue, making us a full-fledged branch of state government.  Consequently, when we vote, we are taking responsibility for caring for these members of our society.

You will hear all sorts of things about Prop 30, and probably already have during this lengthy election season.

The increasingly powerful no-tax lobby will say all sorts of things about this measure, many of them nonsensical or incoherent, where not outright immoral.  But the crux of their argument is that schools could do more with less, that universities should be steadily privatised, that Californians should be like customers when they access state services—paying at the door, those who are poorer getting a product of lower quality, and those who cannot afford the service in question being turned away altogether.  They are saying ‘no’ to the idea of collective investment.  They are repudiating the notion that if all of us invest in schools and universities, we all benefit from a well-rounded citizenry, a well-educated workforce, and a well-funded public research apparatus. 

They are making a rather shallow, unpleasant appeal to short-term self-interest, greed, and the idea that if one generation has already drawn a series of benefits from the public purse, it doesn’t need to put anything back into the collective pot.

Reform purists—and I lean this way on many days of the week—might say that Prop 30 is so incomplete as to be disastrous.  That it is a short-term fix, that it introduces an undesirable inflexibility with its apportionment of funds, that it isn’t as effective as it could have been, that ballot-box budgeting in general is dangerously destabilising.  They would argue for rational, overarching reform, to allow us to have a more reasonable and effective conversation about how to evaluate our priorities and fund our institutions.  And in my view they’re right about each and every one of these particulars.  But the fact is, at this point, it’s about self-preservation.  It’s about halting a very dangerous process so that if we can, hopefully very soon, embrace rational reform, it will be in aid of achieving that there will be something left to protect, to debate, to maintain. 

You might hear people on the political left make a similar argument.  That Prop 30 does nothing to address a system which makes a virtue and a necessity of economic inequality.  They, too, will be correct.  But a failure to act on Prop 30 will do too much material damage to too many lives and fortunes of too many Californians to turn it into an opportunity to make a point.

Let me give you my perspective.

I’m a University of California student, and have been one way or another for over eight years.  I’ve spent about 22 years in California’s public education sphere, teach students at UC, study under wonderful UC faculty, and spend time with a writing program in middle and high school classrooms.  When I entered UC as an undergraduate, students were paying about half of what they are now.  Departments were better-funded, course offerings were more extensive, finishing an undergraduate degree in four years was a more realistic proposition, and UC aspired to provide a well-rounded education to its students.  Much of this has changed, and students would face a 20% increase in their fees should Prop 30 fail and the Governor be forced to plunder its coffers to make up for the budget shortfall.  Campuses would be sent reeling in an effort to make up for a $375 million shortfall.

The UC Regents, hardly a group of radical leftists, have come out in favour of Prop 30.  Schools across the state feel similarly given that they will be facing a $6 billion shortfall.  Teachers would likely be laid-off, programs would be cut, support staff dismissed, and school days might be cut. 

Critics argue that small class sizes don’t matter (ignoring the fact that many of the early problems in California stem from the way in which the cap on class size was implemented by Governor Pete Wilson—overnight without training qualified teachers to fill the new spots).  But no one who has spent a moment in a classroom can say with a straight face that a teacher can educate a class of 35-40 students as well as he or she can a class of 20.  Our state’s classrooms, a testament to California’s diversity and the challenges that accompany this diversity, are filled with students of wildly divergent abilities, from deeply different economic backgrounds, many of them speaking English as a second language.  Students learn in very different ways, respond to different pressures, and need to be challenged and aided accordingly.  Some students have parents who are firmly in their corners, while others lead home lives shockingly bereft of the comforts we might associate with our family lives.  This takes work, and no teacher can adequately address these issues in an overflowing classroom.

Many high school students struggle because of their home lives, because of their school work, because they are bullied, or simply because they are going through what is traditionally a difficult and tumultuous stage of life.  They will be looking for people to turn to, and if they go to the school counselling office, they will increasingly find an empty chair.

It is our hope—and our state’s need (A Portrait of California estimates that by 2025 “the state will have 1 million fewer college graduates than the labour market will demand, resulting in reduced productivity, tax revenues, and incomes”, 124)—that many students will aspire to attend college.  And sadly, when many of those with the ability, but without the family or other social support networks needed to make sense of admissions and aid processes, to weigh their options and consider whether it’s worth it, look for a career or academic guide at their high school, there too they will find a closed-up office. 

For many students, school provides the best structure and stimulus in their lives, and after-school programs and extracurricular activities will be their best chance of coming into their own as young adults.  But if Prop 30 fails to pass, they will find these programs shuttered and these outlets foreclosed.  Even before the latest shrinkage in educational funding, California averaged 90 staff per every 1,000 students in our schools.  In Texas, New York, Illinois, and Florida—all states with comparable demographic complexity—the respective averages were 137, 132, 125, and 117.  For all the talk of wastage in staff, supposedly model states like Texas have 18 more teachers (66.8 vs 48), 1.4 more administrators (1.8 vs .4), 4.8 more principals (7 vs 2.2), 1.2 more guidance counsellors (2.3 vs 1.1), and .9 more librarians (1.1 vs .2) per thousand students than California (A Portrait of California (95).

It’s much the same at universities.  UC and CSU campuses are big places, cities in miniature, some of their student populations numbering over 30,000.  This environment, with its guidelines and requirements, can be daunting, as can large class sizes (their expansion fuelled by decades of your disinvestment from these institutions).  Many of my students work, some of them multiple jobs (giving the lie to the malicious rumours that the ill-informed spread about lazy, leeching students), while carrying heavy unit loads in a very rigorous and fairly unforgiving academic setting.  They too rely on support staff whose numbers are being thinned by relentless cuts to our budget.  World class research universities have to explain to their faculty, postdocs, and graduate students that budget cuts mandate shorter library hours.  There is, I think, a sense at these institutions that we’re coming quickly to the end of an era if we don’t do something soon.

So California, when you pick up your ballot and decide whether to vote for Prop 30, please think about more than your short-term interest.  Think about why schools, colleges, and universities are important.

If you are or ever have had a child at school or a student at university, you should understand why Prop 30 matters.  If you’ve ever known a teacher who made you treasure reading or writing or thinking, a school employee who put out a little extra effort to make your experience there better, a professor who fired your imagination, you should get what the stakes are here.  If you’ve ever been a teacher or known a teacher, and therefore understand that the work done in classrooms is infinitely more complicated and meaningful than teaching students to pass scantron exams, you’ll understand why less is not more.

But California, if you pass Prop 30, don’t let the matter end there.  Because it won’t be enough.  In recognition of the fact that the initiative represents an imperfect approach to a very, very big problem, don’t take your eye off the ball.  Don’t disengage from state politics, from the democracy to which Californians demanded access a century ago and through which we have since exercised a great deal of power without taking much responsibility for the collective consequences of our actions. 

The Governor, the most politically opportunistic, socially irresponsible, and executively inept individual to ever lead California, ducked responsibility during his campaign, in office, and in presenting this choice to Californians.  He wrote a series of damaging trigger cuts into the budget rather than tackle the problem at its root.  So if we indulge him in playing along with his false choice to save our state, we need to demand more of him in the next two years, and I suggest that we, as citizens, devise a trigger of our own: if we don’t see some leadership from Jerry Brown, and an effort to address our state’s structural and systemic ills, we implement a trigger recall.

But please, Californian, don’t let your cynicism about a politician, your contempt for our broken process, or your frustration with our economic circumstances drive your approach to the big issues encapsulated in Proposition 30.  Instead, step up and play the part that we wrote for ourselves in demanding direct democracy—vote to arrest our decline, to halt disinvestment in the institutions which shape our social and economic futures, and support Prop 30.

1 comment:

  1. "The Munger Games" plan is this. Democrat Molly Munger introduces liberal counter-initiative. This allows her to create attack ads against Prop 30 from the "left", saying she is "trying to stop a bad non-liberal initiative". She focuses more on attacking Prop 30 than pushing her own initiative. Republican brother Charlie attacks from the right saying it's evil because it raises taxes. Both throw millions of dollars behind the effort, and stay millionaires. Prop 30 and 38 don't pass. Politicians quit seriously attempting to increase taxes on the wealthy because they think they will lose. Mungers and wealthy, through Republican and Democratic tag team action get to keep their money. Yes! Those fancy pants middle class and poor people with their Toyota Corollas and McDonald Filet-o-Fish sandwiches will never defeat us! Regressive taxes today! Regressive taxes tomorrow! Regressive taxes forever!