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California Democrats Starve Public Education

We are often told that the right wing is acting to destroy public education with people like Wisconsin’s Governor Republican Scott Walker and the Koch brothers being properly vilified. For example, American Federation of Teacher’s President Randi Weingarten has written that, “We need to tell Govs. Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania (now defeated), Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Rick Snyder in Michigan and others that their chronic disinvestment in higher education is a one-way ticket out of the governor’s mansion.” (AFT on Campus Fall 2014 pg. 3)

Weingarten, who recently was involved in the American Federation of Teacher’s endorsement of Hillary Clinton for president, is suggesting that if we have any hope for higher education, we need to place Democrats in power. The same logic would apply to protecting all forms of public education.

However, in many ways, the Republicans are providing cover so that when the Democrats enact programs that starve public education of proper funding, their actions often go unreported and unnoticed.

Democrats are constantly expressing support for education. The policies they enact often do not match their rhetoric.

Many Democrats share a huge responsibility for the degradation of public education. They have overseen cuts in public educational funding. They have also supported anti-union policies demanding more work for less pay while attacking job protection, high stakes testing, and privatization leading to more charter schools and to contracting out much work that had been done previously in-house by a public school.

A prime example of Democrats overseeing the short changing of public education is California under Governor Jerry Brown. During the time he has been in office, starting in 2011, the Democrats have dominated the state government with huge majorities in both houses of the legislature while also holding all executive offices. However, funding for education in real dollar amounts has been lacking even as revenue has increased and despite a reformed budget process in place during the time Brown has been governor. Now, a simple majority of each house of the state legislature is sufficient to pass a budget. Previously, a two-thirds majority had been necessary.

Here is the recent record of spending on education in California.

Screen Shot 2015-09-16 at 3.01.02 PM

The above numbers are striking.

In the budget approved for fiscal year 2008-2009, when Schwarzenegger was still governor and a two-thirds majority in each house of the legislature was necessary to pass a budget, spending for K-12 was $46.2 billion and for higher education stood at $13.6 billion. Both amounts of educational spending are higher for every subsequent year until 2015-2016, even after total state funds were higher than they were in 2008-2009.

Partly in response to the recession that began in 2008, spending on education for all of the years thereafter reached the lowest point in 2011-2012 which is after Brown became governor. Total spending for K-12 and higher education combined that year stood at $46.9 billion compared to $59.7 billion in 2008-2009 when Schwarzenegger was governor. From 2008-2009 to 2011-2012, total state funds declined $15 billion. Educational institutions absorbed the bulk of the cuts as a result of the reduced state funds. The cuts in state spending for education came to $12.8 billion, or over 85% of the reduction in state funds.

The percent of state funds devoted to education was higher during each of the last four years that Schwarzenegger was governor than every year since Brown took office.

In 2015-16, for the first time, nominal spending on education will be higher than it was in 2008-2009. It stands at $50.5 billion for K-12 and $14.6 billion for higher education. This does not mean that more money than in 2008-2009 is being spent on education. Here’s why.

If one takes into account cost of living increases (whose measurement is in dispute) during these seven years, the actual amount of spending on education is, at best, slightly above the same level of real spending it was at in 2008-2009 when Schwarzenegger was governor. From 2008-2009 to 2015-2016, state funds increased from $144.5 billion to $167.6 billion or more than $23 billion. Yet, education has received less than $5.5 billion of the $23 billion increase in revenue. For the previous year, 2014-2015, total education spending was less than $58.5 billion or approximately $1.3 billion less than in 2008-2009 despite total state funds being almost $12 billion higher in 2014-2015 than in 2008-2009.

Another cut in educational spending that undermines the notion of more money being spent in 2015-2016 than in 2008-2009 is reflected in a change in the pension plan of most teachers in California.

Claims were made that the teacher’s retirement plan, CALSTRS, would face huge unfunded liabilities in thirty years. A “reform” was enacted in 2014.

Under the “reform,” school districts face a dramatic increase in their matching contribution based on the pay for all enrollees of CALSTRS. The matching contribution will rise from 8.25% in 2013-2014 to 10.73% in 2015-2016, increasing each year until it reaches 19.1% in 2020-2021.

Given that most of a school’s budget is spent on salaries, much, if not more than all new money going towards education in California, will not be spent on improving the education of students, but end up being sent over to CALSTRS. Then, the people running CALSTRS will send much of this new money on to Wall Street. (Most teachers will also experience a cut in pay of 2.25% when, in 2016-2017, the money docked from their pay stands at 10.25% compared to 8% in 2013-2014.)

Of course, as has been common throughout his career, Governor Brown asserts, as he did to the New York Times in a November 7, 2014 article, that we have to live “within our means” calling doing so “a heroic continuing battle.”

Heroism aside, what in essence is happening is greater austerity unnecessarily being imposed on public education. This results in denying teachers a decent level of pay and K-12 students from experiencing properly funded schools. It minimizes affordable higher educational opportunities at a time when an education is perhaps needed more than ever. And this is coming not from Republicans, but from the Democrats in California.

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Rick Baum teaches Political Science at City College of San Francisco. He is a member of AFT 2121.

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