As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Education Budget Fight Explodes All Over California

We don't have a state that's given to paying attention to policy debates in Sacramento. The political media is woefully thin and getting thinner, people are simply distracted by struggling to stay afloat economically, and any politics that actually does penetrate the state consciousness is national, like what surrogate said what about what Presidential candidate. So it's something of a shock to see so many flashpoints on the California budget fight, with particular respect to the potential defunding of education. As notices about imminent budget cuts go out to state teachers, and school boards set their budgets for the 2008-2009 school year, Californians are waking up - almost entirely at once - to the enormity of this situation. The idea that we can give pink slips to tens of thousands of teachers without exploring the far more sensible option of reviewing the structural revenue model in the state and making it reflect current needs and collective responsibility has really enraged parents, teachers, administrators and students.

It takes a lot to get California residents and voters interested in state public policy. But we may be on the cusp of something big here—of the magnitude of what led to Proposition 13 on property taxes in 1978 and the recall election in 2003 of Gray Davis that brought us Arnold Schwarzenegger as our Governor. In fact, when it comes to 2003, some are suggesting that Arnold is the same as Gray. If you have a couple of minutes, take a look at this local television news report and see how unhappy the Governor is with the comparison.

California is earthquake country and sometimes the ground moves slowly with a series of barely detectable minor quakes, but sometimes it shakes violently and new fault lines are seen. As the San Jose Mercury News put it:

“…there's no denying the emotional power generated by thousands of teacher pink slips in schools all over the state.

"It's difficult for people to grasp a debate over something as abstract as the budget," said Fred Silva, a budget expert and fiscal policy analyst at Beacon Economics. "But how much your public school is going to have for an arts program, or a reading program, is not abstract at all."

Frank Russo details the number of protests that have broken out statewide, mostly from grassroots groups. When they line up with the growing coalition of traditional interest groups (education, labor, public safety, environment, health care and social services), the pressure on the Governor and legislative Republicans to recognize that California is worth paying for and that the public would be furious at across-the-board cuts will be enormous. Just yesterday school superintendents, parents and kids rallied on the Capitol steps, and Jack O'Connell found something else to emphasize:

By the time Jack O’Connell, California’s state Superintendent of Public Instruction, made his way through the crowd to speak, he was greeted with thunderous applause and a warm hug. He fired up the crowd, telling them what they already knew—but his words were clearly destined for those in legislative session inside the building and to Governor Schwarzenegger, who was in Fairfield, delivering a speech on carpenter apprenticeship programs. He charged the Governor with an “abdication of one’s responsibility to set values and priorities” in proposing a 10% across the board set of budget cuts and characterized the $4.8 billion of cuts to education as a “hostile suspension of Prop 98,” noting that the voters in passing that measure had supported educational funding and had confirmed that priority 3 years ago—a reference to their rejection of a ballot measure in Schwarzenegger’s special election of 2005 that would have weakened it.

O’Connell was just one of the speakers who tied education to our future, our economy as a state, to reductions in imprisonment and crime, and to moral values. He said: “If you want to invest in the future, you invest in public education. If you want to shortchange the future, then you shortchange education. The cuts being proposed would be devastating to education. It would be a great step backwards.”

He directly challenged the Governor and Republicans on the framing of this issue: “We don’t have a spending problem. Our problem is with our priorities. When you hear people say we have a spending problem, you tell them we have a values problem. We have a problem with or priorities. That is why we need to make sure that the public policy document for the state of California is one that invests in the future.”

This is an unusual moment, where street-level organizing and grassroots action is really dominating the news. The last time we saw this was when the Governor's special election initiatives were thoroughly defeated in 2005. A more confrontational politics is a direct result of a more confrontational grassroots. Lines in the sand are being drawn. This is an interesting time to be covering state politics.

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