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Robert Denham

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California's Gamble on K-12 Education is Gamble on Our Future

Posted: 03/11/11 09:13 PM ET

Predicating education financing on California's legislators busy posturing on the budget for re-election or on voter emotions in June of 2011 is looking more and more like a bad bet. In Sacramento Governor Jerry Brown's proposal to extend tax hikes for another five years that state lawmakers approved last year as temporary in order to hold K-12 education and public safety somewhat "harmless" has been met by delaying and dodging tactics. So, even if the proposal makes it to the statewide ballot, the bet is hedged by pinning the survival of California's schools on a public that feels its pocketbooks have run dry. Californians do not have a history of voting for tax hikes -- any tax hikes.

So what's a Governor to do? Take a page from the classroom. "Show and Tell" is an effective communication strategy. I appreciate much of the frank talk and tough choices Governor Brown has put forward. However, I think we're going to need a much bigger dose of reality. We need black and white examples of the depth of cuts across education and other programs to judge how serious this is in "people on the street" terms.

The Governor has said he doesn't want to hold a gun to Californians' heads. I understand that logic. Yet without honest choices I fear it will be too easy to convince ourselves that slicing and dicing the state budget will not affect our lives, or our children's future, in meaningful ways.

The "wait until June" strategy already is creating grave uncertainty about the future of California's public education system and putting school administrators and their employees through the useless exercise that has become as much a part of spring as poppy blooms. Public school officials are required to plan for a budget they do not yet have and can't be sure of until at least June. The exercise takes the form of worst case scenario planning putting teachers, parents and students in months of anxiety and adding to costs. Managing any complex system, including school districts, with grossly inadequate funding consumes time, energy, and attention in budget challenges that should be directed to helping each child meet his or her educational potential.

Let's be clear. Long term inadequate funding already has led to a serious degradation of public schooling including teacher layoffs (especially in schools that serve the state's most vulnerable populations), lack of textbooks, crumbling buildings, and cuts to core programs. All of this has been compounded by the recent economic downturn causing even leaner education budgets. We can't afford to fall much further.

I urge Governor Brown to take every opportunity possible to put the tough choices out there in stark, honest contrast. I can only hope more frank talk and a clearer picture of what's at stake will tilt the odds in our children's favor - in the quickly passing days of March as legislators test themselves on difficult cuts, tax extensions, and a balanced budget - and in June, when voters have an opportunity to decide what's best for our state's future as embodied in our children.