Next year, said Los Angeles Unified Supt. John Deasy, "the school district, charter schools and all, will tumble off a cliff." The school year would have to be five weeks shorter. "And after that? … I try to stay away from hyperbole, but that would be the end of public education in California."
Education has suffered disproportionately during several years of budget cuts. That's made California a national leader on some embarrassing fronts.
We have the largest prison population in the country, and our public universities have hiked tuition more over the last decade than any other state.
In kindergarten through 12th grade, our public schools have the highest student-staff ratio, which translates to the most crowded classes. And we're 47th in per-student spending. We were fifth when my generation was in school.
It's no wonder our student achievement numbers leave little to brag about.
You can — as many people do — blame illegal immigrants or lazy teachers or dysfunctional families. Latching on to a stereotype makes it easier to turn your back on those schools, those problems, those students.
That could hurt come election day, because 70% of voters have no children in public schools. They rely on news that tends to be heavy on scandal and light on success stories.
"There's a crisis of confidence in our schools," State Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson acknowledged at the Education Success Project's conference last weekend. And that's a lot to overcome in an era when every penny counts.
But the biggest hindrance may not be school performance. Voters believe, polls suggest, that legislators and bureaucrats are nickel-and-diming schools to death.
Public schools need two things to thrive: Enough money to innovate, and enough independence to move beyond the old way of doing things.
I'm willing to help on the money end, but my check comes with a caveat: Lawmakers, grow a backbone. Stand up to special interests. Listen to progressive thinkers. Don't let unions or corporate moguls dictate how we spend it.
This bailout won't benefit me. My last child is in her last year of college, at a Cal State campus, where tuition has nearly doubled in four years and left me in debt up to my ears.
But public school quality affects us all. We can pay now in higher taxes, or we can shoulder the burden of an uneducated populace later.
The stability, safety and success of our state and our communities rest on the quality of our public schools. Job growth, housing values, who stays in California and who moves on — all of that is on the line when you cast your ballot on Nov. 6.
I don't want to live in a state that spends more on its prisoners than its children.
The need for help now is real, and the damage will be monstrous without it.