Apodaca: We must move past blame to save education

California is a wondrous place.

From the magnificence of the Sierra Nevada to the bounties of the Central Valley to the splendor of the coastline, we are blessed with unrivaled richness and beauty. Silicon Valley has changed the way we live, and Hollywood has inspired us to dream. Our factories have built machines that sent men to the moon. We are steeped in cultural diversity, intellectual adventurousness and old-fashioned know-how.

We built arguably the world's finest institutions of public education, from elementary schools to our vaunted universities.

And we've very nearly ruined them.

The state's system — if one could call it that — of governance and finance is a wreck, and one of its biggest victims is our schools. That remains the case in spite of Tuesday's ballot box reprieve.

California voters passed Proposition 30, Gov. Jerry Brown's initiative to raise taxes on incomes of more than $250,000 for seven years and the sales tax by one-quarter cent for four years. The measure was designed to save our emaciated public education coffers from another $6-billion hit — the equivalent of cutting three weeks off the school year.

We'll never know just how bad the situation would have gotten if Proposition 30 hadn't passed. Many voters remain skeptical of dire warnings of school district bankruptcies, massive classroom cuts and onerous college tuition hikes. They question the wisdom of sending new tax money to a mismanaged state government, despite Brown's promise of the first balanced budget in 15 years.

But the scary scenarios were very real to some of the most levelheaded people around.

Consider the picture painted by Paul Reed, the Newport-Mesa Unified School District's deputy superintendent and chief business official, at a recent board meeting. Reed, not a man given to hyperbole, estimated that if Proposition 30 were to fail, the district's per-student funding, which has fallen from $5,821 to $5,244 in the past five years, would drop to $4,789.

"Fiscal nuclear winter," is how he characterized the prospective loss in revenue.

That prediction was so sobering that another comment by Reed likely passed by with little notice.

"We're going to be looking at reductions regardless of what happens in November," he said.

The harsh fact remains that Proposition 30's passage is no call for celebration in the halls of academia. It's a highly flawed stopgap measure that does nothing to fix California's profoundly damaged public schools in the long run. And a real danger exists that relief over the measure's passage will turn to complacency regarding the necessity of lasting, comprehensive reform.

Not that there's ever been any encouraging sign of a willingness to crack that nut in the first place. Indeed, how can we repair education when we can't even agree on the nature of the problem?

It's the fault of those greedy teachers, some people say. No, it's their corrupt union bosses, others believe, or the self-serving Sacramento politicians, or unethical corporate interests, or inept bureaucrats. We spend so much time arguing about whom to blame for the fiasco that we haven't had a real conversation about how to turn it around.

So let's get this point out of the way. Who is to blame? Everyone, including you, me and anyone eligible to vote over the past 40 years. We've all had a hand in the decisions that have led us down this disastrous path, from the tangled web of conflicting and confounding ballot initiatives we've voted into law, to the leaders we've chosen, to the willful blindness of our fix-it-tomorrow mentality.

It's as if the state's master plan was devised by a group of drunks who woke up the next morning and discovered they had to abide by the indecipherable cocktail-napkin pronouncements that must have seemed so brilliant the night before.

Now we need to lock all those hungover Einsteins in a room together until they come up with a workable plan for fair, stable and consistent financing of public education.

There would only be one rule: Nothing's off limits. All the untouchable sacred cows — from pensions and tenure to Proposition 13's system of property taxation — would be negotiable.

Could it ever really happen? Could we put aside our differences and forge a compromise — you know, that strange thing that happens when everyone bravely gives up something to get something, all for the common good?

Can we save public education in California and restore it to its former renown? Can we look ahead and realize that successful schools are the surest, truest means of achieving a bright and prosperous future for everyone?

As difficult as it is to reach for even a sliver of optimism, we can't give up hope that our state will soon awaken from its torpor, stop kicking the education can down the road, and demand solutions.

Gov. Brown, it could start with you. We elected you, and we've given you what you asked for with Proposition 30. Now how about showing real political courage and forging a legacy for all Californians by leading the charge for comprehensive educational reform? We're all waiting to hear the plan.

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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