Last week, Los Angeles voters followed a long-time tradition of generosity toward public education with a majority “yes” vote for Measure E, which would have provided emergency funding for neighborhood schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District. But the 53 percent the measure garnered was nowhere near the two-thirds vote required by law to pass the funding initiative. We must now look elsewhere for the funds to bridge our children through the worst economic times since the Great Depression. That includes leaving no line item unexamined in an effort to eke out funds for our classrooms.
So, where do we go from here with a school district facing a $640 million deficit this year?
Long before all the votes were counted on election night, I knew I would need to get up the next morning to fight for our students’ future. In a democratic society, it is the responsibility of government to provide an education for young people. Public education has been part of building America’s unified culture and has helped level the playing field so that talented, hardworking young people can advance and achieve.
L.A. Unified is not the only district in dire financial straits. There is a national educational emergency in progress as districts across the country, devastated by their states’ weak economies, are cutting teaching positions. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan estimates that as many as 300,000 teaching and support staff positions are targeted for elimination nationally. Never before has our nation contemplated such a wholesale gutting of the public education system.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey has shown leadership on the issue that reflects a commitment to education as a public trust.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, had originally planned to add a $23 billion emergency education fund to the supplemental appropriations package of war and disaster spending that is moving through Congress this week. Harkin withdrew his amendment in the face of a growing outcry in Congress about the nation’s deficit; he could not muster enough votes to circumvent opposition in the Senate. (Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., was a Harkin bill co-sponsor; Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., opposed it despite steady grass-roots pressure.)
Obey moved to add the $23 billion to the House supplemental bill. His efforts have also been weakened by deficit hawks in both parties, and the original $23 billion in the House version has been scaled back to $10 billion. Even worse, as I write this, House leaders are considering scrapping their own version of the bill and going with the Senate-passed one—the bill without the education funding.
But Obey is not backing down. A story in Politico last week reported that he is pushing to find the funds in unspent money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, aka the stimulus package. In doing so, he is pressing his Congressional colleagues and the Obama administration, which has supported the emergency education funding, to reaffirm their commitment to public education as a central priority.
Here in California, Assembly Speaker John Perez has rolled out a California Jobs Budget that includes $3.8 billion in repayment of funds borrowed from local school districts. It is an ambitious proposal as California struggles for the third year in a row to close a multi-billion-dollar budget gap, and in the next few weeks we will see exactly how far apart the Senate and the Assembly are in their budget priorities.
But it is also true that before Perez made his proposal, there was talk of suspending Proposition 98, the state law that requires full funding for grades K-12. Discussion of a plan that would introduce more funds instead of cutting has taken the suspension of Proposition 98 off the table for the moment.
That is not a final victory. We all know the budget process is long and contentious. But the proposals at the state and federal levels provide us with openings to fight and push for more money for public education, not less.
There’s plenty of blame to go around for the state of the economy and the crash that started the slide. We can argue about who caused it, but I can tell you who didn’t—the students in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The kids are not the cause of our economic problems, and they should certainly not be the victims. We must recommit ourselves to their future.
Steve Zimmer is a LAUSD board member.