California State Superintendent of Education Addresses Budget Cuts
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September 15, 2009 – KPBS sat down with California State Superintendent of Education, Jack O'Connell, to discuss budget cuts and school foundations.
JOANNE FARYON (Host): Earlier, we sat down with the State Superintendent of Education, Jack O’Connell. We asked him about foundations and $12 billion in budget cuts. JACK O’CONNELL (California State Superintendent of Education): Well this is the worst year that I’ve seen. It’s cumulative. It’s not just a one-year reduction. This has been on top of several years now of schools not getting as much funding as they should. We haven’t made it the top priority in Sacramento, like I would like to see it made, and we simply have not been investing in the future. When you look at dollars spent per student on a per capita basis compared to the other fifty states we an embarrassingly low 47th. We’re not making the type of investment in the future we need to do if we’re going to remain economically strong, if we’re going to continue to remain, for our country, an economic giant it has to come from California. California used to be the 5th largest economic engine in the world. We’re dropping. We’re now the 8th largest economic engine in the world, and there are developing 3rd word countries that are about to surpass us. FARYON: Lets talk about what communities are now attempting to do to change that per pupil funding. We went into some of our local schools in San Diego County, called a number of our districts, and looked into education foundations – which I’m sure are not a new thing to you. They started surfacing after Prop 13, late 70’s early 80’s. These foundations are raising money for their schools, some of them raising more than $2 million for a single school. And its not unusual for these foundations even to be raising enough money to change the teacher-student ratio. Are these foundations a good thing? O’CONNELL: The foundations are a good thing, but we have to be concerned and it has to raise a red flag for us if we’re contributing towards he inequitable educational opportunities of our students. The changes that I’ve seen – and I’ve been around for a while now – foundations used to help us with supplemental educational activities. For example, field trips, for example end of year party, for example additional textbooks, enrichment activities. Today we’re seeing these foundations working with, making sure we have basic essential supplies in the classroom. Books, pencils, paper… Kleenex to be very basic. And then some that come from more affluent areas, candidly, can help us with class size reduction. Look, I wrote the law on class size reduction, when I was a member of legislature, so that we had no more than 20 student to one teacher grades K-3. I’m really the architect on our modest high school class size reduction program. O’CONNELL (Con’t.): And governor Wilson was great coming up with the funding. I always say that. But now we’re seeing many of these class size reductions programs, districts walking away from. They’re simply not able to afford them because the incentive money is not enough. And that’s where these foundations, many of them in affluent communities, stepping up to the plate and making sure we keep that 20-1 with this foundational support. So the foundations are to be commended but we also have to be aware in terms of policy that our efforts to close the achievement gap are not being addressed with these dramatic cutbacks. FARYON: How are the foundations required to register – or what are the requirements in terms of these foundations, and regulations, or even registering with the state. O’CONNELL: There really are very few regulations at all. Anyone can start a foundation, and again, thank goodness for that type of activity. But we do have to be aware of the absence of these foundations in many communities where we’re trying to close the achievement gap, FARYON: But why aren’t they required to register so that you can keep tally of how much they’re raising, and how much they might be changing the overall way public schools are financed? O’CONNELL: There’s no requirement that I’m aware of that these foundations have to report to the California Department of Education. They have to spend money for the intended purpose that they’re raising the money for. FARYON: Could you make that requirement as superintendent? O’CONNELL: I couldn’t, that would take a legislative bill for that. And probably one of the arguments would be we don’t want to do anything to discourage parental involvement. I want parents to get more involved. I mean, parents are still our most important teachers. They’re our first teacher. And we need that home front to be an extension of our school front to help our teachers – particularly this year. In fact I have said as schools are opening, its going to be more important this year than ever before for parents to be there to support and supplement those instructional opportunities from, really, a challenging educational climate. FARYON: How do you as superintendent say, in terms of bridging the gap – and there are laws regarding equity – how does that measure up in terms of California’s mandate to provide equitable education? O’CONNELL: Famous court case, early 1970’s, that stated we need to do a better job of equalizing education for our students. There were some exceptions to that court decision. Categorical funding was excluded, facilities excluded. The foundations, I’m not sure if it was intentionally excluded of if it just wasn’t intended or really a concern yet. But the basic revenue limits we’ve done a pretty good job as a result of this equalization court decision from many years ago, mid 70’s, to try to bring under control the distribution of support to our schools. So on the general revenue limit side, we’ve done a pretty good job. That said, there are clearly inequities. You’ve pointed out some, I’ve pointed out some. O’CONNELL (Con’t.): We have an achievement gap in California. I’ve been talking about the achievement gap for a couple of years. We have just now begun to see ever so slight, incremental narrowing of the achievement gap in some areas. And while these foundations are not contributing towards helping us close the achievement gap for the most part – there are two ways to close the achievement gap. You can bring students up that have historically been lagging – and that’s our approach – or you bring other student down. That’s not our approach. That’s the wrong way to go. So we need to try to accelerate our efforts at narrowing this achievement gap. What we have to do is we want all students to continue to see improvement. All boats have to rise. And we’re seeing that in California. And at the same time we need to redouble our efforts at narrowing that achievement gap. FARYON: Where does the voice of discontent come from though? Where’s the outcry? I mean this is the largest cut you’ve said in years - $12 billion dollars – where does the outcry come from if in those neighborhoods that have voice and affluence are filling in the gap and here you don’t hear from these communities? So where ultimately if the state has an obligation to provide public education to everyone, are the voters ultimately going to say tax me more, do something about this, I’m not happy, no I’ll write a check, my kids doing a good job everything’s alright. If you allow this to continue unregulated, ultimately where does the uproar come over budget cuts? O’CONNELL: My read is the voters of this state want to invest in public education. And let me cite some very specific examples. Even just this past November, so you’re looking at 9 months ago during the economic recession that we’re experiencing nationally and in this state, the voters of this state when given an opportunity stepped up to the plate to invest in public education. School bonds, local bonds – 91% passed. And its not just 9 out of 10. My numbers might be off, but it was 77 out of 85. We passed parcel taxes 81% at the higher vote threshold, two thirds vote threshold. We passed the Mellow Russe School Districts – the form for new schools, 90% there as well. The citizens of this state, I believe, are ahead of the governor and many in the legislature in terms of their willingness to commit additional funding to public education O’CONNELL (Con’t.): The citizens understand educations the future, educations the great equalizer. Education is key to California’s economic recovery, and key to California having a well skilled, well-educated, analytical, problem-solving workforce.