Apodaca: Public education hangs in the balance this election season

Have you ever been in a building when a fire alarm sounds, and everyone pauses and looks around, not wanting to make the first move or appear the panicked fool who rushes to the exit first?

Probably just a false alarm; that's usually the case, we think. And so we hesitate and weigh the risks of hurriedly leaving our comfortable seats and looking uncool in the process versus the very real possibility that the whole blasted place is about to burn to the ground.

That's where we are with public education in California. The house is on fire and, given its already dilapidated condition, the flames will do quick and devastating work. Yet here we are, wondering whether to toss one measly bucket of water to keep the inferno in check.

The bucket of water, in this scenario, is Proposition 30, Gov. Jerry Brown's proposal for a temporary increase in the sales tax and in taxes on incomes of more than $250,000.

On Nov. 6, voters will decide the initiative's fate. If it's rejected, California will immediately slash $6 billion annually from a budget that's already been subjected to deep cuts. Under state law, that would trigger an automatic reduction of $4.8 billion in K-12 funding — the equivalent of about three weeks of school — another $1 billion from higher education, and assorted other education cuts.

Keep in mind that California ranks 47th out of the 50 states in per-student spending, and remains near the bottom of national rankings on reading and math. Many districts have already axed several days from the school year, boosted class sizes, and eliminated enrichment programs. Cal State and University of California tuitions have risen sharply, and good luck to community college students trying to get the classes they need.

If Proposition 30 fails, here's a sampling of what would probably happen next: Districts teetering on the brink of insolvency would get a final push. What's left of publicly funded arts and music instruction will die. Science programs will evaporate. School libraries will close. Math clinics will be subtracted. Counselors would be advised to update their resumes. More students will be stuffed into crowded classrooms. School terms will shrink. College costs will rise — again — while class offerings will decline — again.

Newport-Mesa Unified would immediately lose nearly $10 million, which could be absorbed in the current school year's $230.8-million budget by digging into the reserve fund. But the district, which cut $25 million from its budget a few years back, would face up to $16 million in additional spending reductions over the following two school years, according to Paul Reed, deputy superintendent and chief business official.

Reed will present his assessment of Proposition 30 at the school board meeting Tuesday evening. Expect a lot of grim faces.

It's important to acknowledge a few significant caveats, the first of which is that there is another ballot measure, Proposition 38, which addresses education funding. The initiative, backed by civil rights attorney Molly Munger and the California PTA, would restore somewhere between $6 billion and $10 billion in K-12 funding annually — estimates vary — by raising income taxes on a sliding scale weighted more heavily toward the state's top earners.

Many in the education community prefer Proposition 38 because most of the money raised would go directly to schools. That's an attractive feature, given the understandable mistrust of Sacramento.

But here's the catch: If both propositions pass — granted, that's a very big "if" — only the one with the bigger majority will become law. And that means if Proposition 38 prevails, the automatic spending reductions will take effect anyway, and by the time money is raised and begins flowing to schools, education will have already sucked in the noxious fumes. Only Proposition 30 will forestall the asphyxiating trigger cuts.

It must also be acknowledged that Californians have very good reason to be suspicious of any attempt to raise taxes, even when education is at stake. We'd be delusional if we felt happy about sending more money to a dysfunctional state government, and there is justifiable resentment over the knife-edge coercion implicit in this measure, as in "Pass it, or we stick it to the kids."

Moreover, Proposition 30 does nothing to address public education's most deeply rooted problems, from union intransigence to our monstrously wrongheaded means of funding schools in California. The devastation wrought by these forces on our public school system, which was once the envy of the world, has been one of the great tragedies of my lifetime. Real structural reform, not a series of desperate fixes, is essential.

Right now, though, the bell is ringing, and it's not a false alarm. The bucket brigade is waiting, but it needs you to overcome your misgivings and let it through the door. Imperfect, insufficient and infuriating though it is, Proposition 30 must pass to keep the flames that are engulfing public education in California at bay.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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