Watching California public schools sink — a preventable Titanic

One hundred years ago last month, the cry “women and children first” echoed on the decks of the ill-fated Titanic. A century later, the ship carrying California’s future is listing in the water. However, it seems that today no one is willing to make a sacrifice: It’s every man, woman, and child for himself or herself.

California was once the envy of the country — beautiful beaches, good jobs, a booming economy, and the promise of the best public education system, including top-notch, affordable state colleges and universities. However, the economic seas became rough in 2007 with the impact of the recession. In an effort to keep California afloat, our leaders in Sacramento — unable or unwilling to right the ship by raising revenue — scrambled for items to dump overboard. The value of education plummeted as other budget items were given priority, and education funding became the primary target for cuts, suffering a disproportionate loss of revenue. From 2007-08 to 2010-11, K-12 education funding sustained 54 percent of the loss of revenue, although it represented approximately 40 percent of the General Fund. In contrast, corrections sustained just a 4 percent loss, despite representing approximately 10 percent of the General Fund.

As the recession persists, the captain and crew – Gov. Brown and the legislators – decide what will be loaded into the lifeboats to survive, but there’s little evidence that the children are first. (Lucky for prisoners, federal law makes sure they are at the front of the line.) Instead, lawmakers and the governor are accusing each other of failing to save the children and the integrity of our state’s educational system Gov. Brown has proposed one solution to right the ship, but it requires the children to stay on board until the voters send help by passing his tax initiative. He seems to have overlooked the fact that children may go overboard before help can arrive — their schools must open months before the actual amount of education funding is determined.

The impact of the recession and the sinking of California are wreaking havoc on the schools, as has been documented this month by reports from both the Legislative Analyst’s Office and EdSource. School districts have been left scrambling, throwing items overboard or rearranging deck chairs in a futile attempt to balance their loads. Many districts are forced to borrow funds to keep schools open when the state sends IOUs, adding to their debt burden. Since 2008, more than 40,000 teachers, counselors, nurses, librarians, bus drivers, etc. have been lost, with an additional 20,000 teachers plus thousands more school employees currently in peril. While some education bargaining units are negotiating to save themselves and their students, others seem willing to let those in third class (lower seniority) and their schoolchildren sink with the ship to save their own skins.

Our schools need adequate funding to open their doors before the tax initiative-funded lifeboat can arrive. And the truth is that even if it passes, the initiative provides little more than current funding levels. Because of the uncertainty of the initiative’s passage, districts are compelled to budget with worst-case funding scenarios. As California continues to pitch in the seas of the recession, it is truly the children who will suffer the most severe, long-term damage. They’ll suffer larger classes, shorter school years, the loss of “less important” programs such as music and the arts, the disbanding of professional learning collaborations with the shuffling of remaining teachers, and so on, leaving 6.3 million schoolchildren with permanent gaps in their learning.

One hundred years ago, when the Titanic sank, the world was stunned and outraged that so many lives were lost, and new, preventative measures were instituted to save lives. Years later, we are watching another ship, the public school system in California, go under. Where are the safety measures today for the schoolchildren of our state?  California was already 50th in the nation for student-to-teacher ratio in 2008, and that was before education funding suffered $20 billion in losses. How much more water will we allow our schools to take on before we step in to do something? Will we be able to tell the children of California that we did everything to save them, or will we sit by idly, shrug our shoulders, and point our finger at someone else and say that it was his/her fault? Unlike the Titanic, we can stop this disaster. We must call out “children first” to save them and the future of our state.

Tamara Hurley is a California native, a product of the state’s public education system, and a 24-year resident of San Diego. Trained as a scientist, she has spent the past eight years volunteering on behalf of her children’s public schools, from the classroom to PTO and PTA boards as well as on district, community, and school site committees and site governance teams. Tamara is a board member of Educate Our State, a statewide, nonprofit, parent-led, grassroots organization fighting for high-quality public K-12 education in California.