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California’s Looming Fiscal Disaster: Sunlight and an Informed Public are the Best Disinfectants

November 29, 2011 | Filed Under Anti-Americanism, Budget, California, Democrats/Leftists, Economy/Finances, Ethics, Larry Sand, Liberals, Public Employees Unions, Taxes, Teachers Unions, Unions | Comments Off

-By Larry Sand

With the state and various cities on the brink of insolvency, it’s imperative that the electorate become more informed and demand that school districts and teachers unions do their negotiating in public.

This past Sunday’s Los Angeles Times above-the-fold headline screamed “Voters back tax hikes for schools.” It was déja-vu all over again. As I wrote in September,

“… a poll which is biased and does not take into account the knowledge of the people being polled is misleading and dangerous. The public is led to believe that the responders are perceptive and knowledgeable, when in reality so many are not.”

(And I could have added that a poll that misleads or misinforms its respondents is the most dangerous of all; I’ll address that shortly.)

The Times article reported that a USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences/Los Angeles Times Frequency Questionnaire released last week showed that 61 percent of those surveyed said they would pay higher taxes to boost school funding.

As I read those words, I wondered,

  • What do those people really know about the amount we already spend on education? For example, do they know that over 50 percent of the state’s general fund spending already goes to education?
  • Do they know how much is wasted on an excessive number of administrators and useless bureaucrats?
  • Do they understand that due to an archaic tenure system, it can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to try to rid a school system of one incompetent or criminal teacher?
  • Do they know the average teacher’s salary and how much more they get in additional healthcare and pension compensation?
  • Do they know that teachers can pad their pay by taking useless “professional development” classes that can “earn” them an extra million dollars in their careers and retirement?
  • Do they know that practically every teacher contract in the state has a provision whereby teachers who are union representatives get classroom time off each month to do union business while the taxpayers foot the bill for the rep’s substitute teacher?
  • Do they know that it is the taxpayer supported school district, not the teachers unions, that collects the union dues that teachers are forced to pay in this state?
  • Do they know that California already has one of the highest sales and income tax rates in the country?

There was one question where the pollsters intended to educate the people by including the following “information.” They asked,

“As you may know, California currently ranks forty-second out of the fifty states in funding per student. (Bold added.) Would you favor or oppose increasing funding for California’s public schools, even if it meant an increase in your own taxes?” 61 percent responded that they would favor raising taxes.

The problem with the pollster’s information is that it is very misleading. California is not “forty-second out of the fifty states in funding per student.”

As Sacramento Bee writer Dan Walters pointed out in a column on November 13th, doomsday statistics regarding education matters are typically provided by special interest groups like the National Education Association. What agenda-driven groups typically do is take regional costs such as standard of living into account which skews the numbers in a way that benefits them.
A more objective source like the Census Bureau,

“…surveys all forms of school spending and pegs California’s per-pupil number at $11,588, just $662 under the national average and 27th-highest in the nation….
“And it’s much higher in some big-city school systems, such as Los Angeles Unified, which has more than 600,000 students, spends $14,100 per pupil and has about a 50 percent high-school dropout rate.”

The non-partisan California Legislative Analysts Office has the state in 31st place in school spending.
The whole spending issue becomes even more convoluted, because typically school districts don’t count capital expenses, e.g. the cost of school buildings, in their per-student spending. Since students don’t take classes at the beach or in a field, these costs must be included to give the public an idea of the true cost of educating a child. Including capital costs, the dollar amount that Adam Schaeffer of the Cato Institute came up with for Los Angeles Unified is $25,208 per year.
Mike Antonucci, director of the Education Intelligence Agency, looks at the situation from another perspective. Last May, he pointed out,

“The latest Census Bureau report provides details of the 2008-09 school year, as the nation was in the midst of the recession.”

He then breaks the national numbers down state by state and in California, we find that for the years 2003-2004 to 2008-2009 school enrollment went down 87,548 or 1.4%, but at the same time we added over 3,000 teachers (1.1%) and spending went up a whopping 24.1%.

So even in a time period which included a world wide recession, we see a big increase in spending and a shrinking teacher/student ratio.

The bottom line is that we should not let special interests get away with using skewed data in an attempt to con the public. People need to become better consumers by making a concerted effort to become more informed about what we really spend on education.

One way to accomplish this would be for the public to get directly involved with teacher contract negations. As Education Action Group’s Steve Gunn wrote last week,

“Local taxpayers across the nation cough up millions of dollars every year to fund their local schools. About 75 percent of those schools’ budgets are dominated by labor costs, mostly negotiated union labor costs.” (Bold added.)

“But there’s nothing they can do to address that concern if compensation is negotiated behind their backs.”

And in fact, public scrutiny is a reality. School districts in Idaho, New Jersey, New York and elsewhere have gone public with their contract negotiations.

If Californians don’t become more informed and demand public access to teacher’s contract negotiations — and in fact all public employee contract negotiations — they will continue to let the special interests have their way while the taxpayers get to pay and pay and pay. However there is a limit to the fiscal abuse that the formerly Golden State can stand before it becomes insolvent.
______
Larry Sand began his teaching career in New York in 1971. Since 1984, he has taught elementary school as well as English, math, history and ESL in the Los Angeles Unified School District, where he also served as a Title 1 Coordinator. Retired in 2009, he is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues – information teachers will often not get from their school districts or unions.

“CTEN” was formed in 2006 because a wide range of information from the more global concerns of education policy, education leadership, and education reform, to information having a more personal application, such as professional liability insurance, options of relationships to teachers’ unions, and the effect of unionism on teacher pay, comes to teachers from entities that have a specific agenda. Sand’s comments and op-eds have appeared in City Journal, Associated Press, Newsweek, Townhall Magazine, Los Angeles Times, San Diego Union Tribune, Los Angeles Daily News, San Jose Mercury News, Orange County Register and other publications. This past May, after his weekly blog proved to be very popular, he began writing a monthly article for City Journal, the Manhattan Institute’s policy publication. He has appeared on numerous broadcast news programs and talk radio shows in Southern California and nationally.

Sand has participated in panel discussions and events focusing on education reform efforts and the impact of teachers’ unions on public education. In March 2010, Sand participated in a debate hosted by the non-profit Intelligence Squared, an organization that regularly hosts Oxford-style debates, which was nationally broadcast on Bloomberg TV and NPR, as well as covered by Newsweek. Sand and his teammates – Terry Moe of the Hoover Institution and former U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, opposed the proposition – Don’t Blame Teachers Unions For Our Failing Schools. The pro-union team included Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. In August 2010, he was on a panel at the Where’s the Outrage? Conference in San Francisco, where he spoke about how charter school operators can best deal with teachers’ unions. This past January he was on panels in Los Angeles, San Diego and San Mateo in support of National School Choice week. Additionally, CTEN has hosted two informational events this year – one addressing the secret agenda that is prevalent in many schools these days and the other concerning itself with California’s new Parent Trigger law. The latter event was covered by both the English and Spanish language press.

Sand has also worked with other organizations to present accurate information about the relationship between teachers and their unions, most recently assisting in the production of a video for the Center for Union Facts in which a group of teachers speak truthfully about the teachers’ unions. At this time, he is conferring with and being an advisor to education policy experts who are crafting major education reform legislation.

CTEN maintains an active and strong new media presence, reaching out to teachers and those interested in education reform across the USA, and around the world, with its popular Facebook page, whose members include teachers, writers, think tankers, and political activists. Since 2006, CTEN has experienced dramatic growth.

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