June7, 2002

Commentary

Let’s Not Let Budget Crisis Overshadow Recent School Progress

By Mary Bergan
President, California Federation of Teachers

As always seems to be true when revenues are down, most of the discussion in Sacramento this year is on the state budget and on cutting programs. We give the governor credit for working hard to assure cost-of-living and growth funds for education – K-12 and community college education – as he put together his budget proposals. But we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that cuts to this year’s K-12 budget, and to many non-education programs, made that still-tenuous protection possible.

Many other programs, including the universities which benefit our students and their families, are facing severe reductions. In a time when more and more of our students live in poverty, cuts to health and other support programs will have a devastating impact on their lives.

We also can’t let education’s relatively good fortune in this lean year lead us to forget that California’s base education funding is woefully inadequate. We have made some progress over the last few years, but we still have a long way to go.

While overall student enrollment is growing, that growth is uneven, and an increasing number of districts are experiencing declines in enrollment as families are priced out of local housing markets. For the first time in many years, many districts are laying off teachers and staff.

We know that the American economy is cyclical, that growth does not continue indefinitely, especially at the pace of the late 1990s. But we cannot afford for education funding to cycle down when the growth of the recent past has brought us only a short distance in the direction we need to go.

Along with the extraordinary growth in the late 1990s, came cuts in the state income tax through elimination of the highest brackets, and in the taxes and fees paid on motor vehicles. These cost the state billions of dollars. The reinstatement of these taxes would significantly reduce the state’s budget deficit. And the money would come from those most able to pay it.

Persons with incomes of $350,000 received about $3,000 from last year’s federal income tax cut (I leave aside for the moment the wisdom of that cut); the reinstatement of top state tax brackets would cost those individuals $450. Persons with incomes of $700,000 got windfalls of $20,000, but would pay the state only an additional $3000. Drivers of the biggest and most expensive cars pay the most in taxes on those cars.

If we let the budget deliberations focus solely on cutting programs and on deferring state bills that will become due in the near future, we are letting education and other human services be locked into stagnation long after the California economy recovers. We have to make it OK – not just OK, but imperative – for legislators to have serious discussions about taxes in an election year.

We’re not going to let legislators and the governor merely ask us where we think they should cut. We’re going to tell them that to be responsible, they have to look first to increasing revenues substantially. It’s the only way for education – and California - to continue to go forward.

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