By Peter Schrag
Gov. Jerry Brown’s latest budget cuts prompted a quick and predictable response from the K-12 school lobby, aka the Education Coalition, among them state school superintendent Tom Torlakson, the teacher unions, the association of school administrators, the school boards, and the PTA.
And for the most part, the response was absolutely proper, especially when it focused on the unfairness and stupidity of the cuts to school transportation funds. As they said at a phone-in press event last week, those cuts will hit the state’s poorest and neediest students the hardest.
But once again a single interest group is alone pleading its cause. At other times in the ongoing budgetary bloodletting of the past three or four years, it’s been the University of California or the faculty unions at the California State University, or the students or, as in the past few months, the amorphous group of Occupy protestors which, of late, seems to be hitting the working men and women in our cities and ports harder than the plutocrats on Wall Street.
As all but the craziest of the protestors must know, lobbying for a larger slice of a shrinking public budget or demanding the resignation of a campus chancellor, however brutal the behavior of the campus cops, or even an endless series of events about the economic folly and moral abdication of school budget cuts, won’t bring the funding and public support on which they all depend.
At last week’s press event, Torlakson, in answer to a question, said he was having conversations with UC President Mark Yudof and CSU Chancellor Charles Reed about some form of joint action. There was also a promise of some sort of decision on which of the growing list of tax initiatives and budget reforms members of the Ed Coalition would support.
Recent polls show voters more inclined to support tax increases, especially if they’re directed to education, though recent history also indicates that over time and in the face of vigorous opposition even strong majorities in opinion polls can erode to a minority on Election Day. Voters can be just as fickle as politicians.
What’s certain is that chances of success in raising taxes, either at the ballot box or, just possibly (perish the thought) even in the Legislature would be considerably enhanced with a front in which all providers and beneficiaries of major public services – schools, universities, police, fire, parents, business leaders, mayors – stood and campaigned together.
A generation ago, in 1988, UC President David Gardner and the regents made the fatal mistake of refusing to join the school lobbies in supporting a ballot measure to revise the severe state spending limit that had been on the books since 1979. In effect, they made a separate peace with then-Gov. George Deukemjian to protect their own little slice. That brought Proposition 98, through which the California Teachers Association state school superintendent Bill Honig sought to lock up some 40 percent of the general fund for K-12 schools and community colleges.
The upshot was a wave of go-it-alone efforts by the university, which has talked off-and-on about running its own Proposition 98, and by local governments, which have in fact managed to lock away their own little slice of state revenues. Each further reduced legislative discretion – already severely curtailed by tax limits and other ballot measures -- and intensified the distrust among groups that should be working in common cause.
But the most puzzling element in this history is the gap left by the business community, which, as much as any major group in California, ought to have an intense interest in the maintenance of good research universities and quality education generally; in safe streets and safe schools; in an efficient, high quality transportation system, in well maintained parks and other public amenities, and in a high standard of living generally.
But except for its frequent complaints about California’s bad business climate, and, occasionally, bad schools, California business, many of whose leaders were beneficiaries of UC or CSU, has been AWOL. When Torlakson (or Yudof or Reed) issue their well-justified kvetches about how they’re getting screwed in Sacramento, business should be standing with them.
But they should also be standing together to persuade both voters and their representatives of the unbreakable link between high quality services and the revenues to pay for them. The message is that both nationally and in Sacramento we need something bigger than the mincy budget we’re now trying to survive on.
Last week, at a conference at PPIC, the public Policy Institute of California, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, now a professor of public policy at Berkeley, talked about the need for “a more robust sense of publicness.”
In the richest country in the history of the world, he said, we don’t have an economic problem; we have a political problem. In this state, the essence of the problem is crystallized when “the top ten percent ask ‘why should we pay for this entity called California?’” The challenge for Torlakson, et. al. is to get them to understand that in any good society it’s a stupid question.
Peter Schrag, whose exclusive weekly column appears every Monday in the California Progress Report, is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future and California: America’s High Stakes Experiment. His newest book, Not Fit for Our Society: Nativism, Eugenics, Immigration is now on sale. View his past work on California Progress Report here.