On Education: The fate of schools is in voters' hands

This post has been updated, see below for details.

The hum of a half-dozen telephone conversations percolated through Glendale Teachers Assn. headquarters in Montrose on a recent afternoon. Union members are gathering on a near daily basis to call voters and draw attention to two major education-related state propositions that will appear on the November ballot.

Proposition 32 would limit the political clout of unions in Sacramento by prohibiting the use of payroll-deducted funds for political purposes. It is framed as a means to temper the influence of special interest groups. Corporate-fueled Super PACs, meanwhile, would be free to go about their business.

“Individually, I can't compete with these folks in terms of my involvement in politics, but if I go through my union, yes,” said Paul Noto — who has taught science at Glendale High School for 18 years — between calls to voters. “I think that when it comes to teachers and teachers unions, our special interests really are the kids and our schools and public education.”

The proposition should sound familiar. California voters have rejected something similar twice before.

Also on the teachers' agenda is Proposition 30, which temporarily increases the sales tax by a quarter-cent and personal income taxes on those earning more than $250,000 annually. It is expected to generate $6 billion a year for the next five years, with a portion of it to be used to patch holes in kindergarten through community college education funding.

Glendale Unified will likely be issuing layoff notices come spring, with or without the additional tax revenue. District officials have already announced that they will need to absorb $5.4 million in cuts by Dec. 15. School board members in June approved a $167.7-million budget for 2012-13.

What the failure of Prop. 30 would produce is an additional $12-million midyear cut to Glendale schools, according to Eva Lueck, the district's chief business and financial officer.

In short, the options for voters are bad or worse.

“If Prop. 30 doesn't pass, then we are not going to have funding for schools,” said Phyllis Miller, who teaches fourth grade at Dunsmore Elementary School. “We are going to lose about $550 per student in Glendale and we can't afford to take a hit like that.”

The argument is, then, that unless we want to see schools further hobbled, voters need to support Prop. 30. It might seem like a weak rallying cry, and in many ways it is. Why should taxpayers continue to direct money into a system that is underperforming as compared to those in most other states?

[For the Record, Oct. 12, 2012: A previous version of this column mistakenly stated voters need to support Prop. 32. The author had meant to write "Prop. 30."]

Goodness knows California schools have their flaws. Nearly all spending is prescribed at the state level, leaving local administrators with virtually no control over how to invest resources to best meet student needs.

This financial structure must be reformed if the state hopes to produce enough educated graduates to power a world-class economy in the coming decades.

But our system is also serving a population unlike any in the country. One in four students in our K-12 system — currently 6 million children strong — is learning English as a second language. Even more are socioeconomically disadvantaged.

State test scores have showed modest gains in recent years. Perhaps more important to you is that Glendale students continue to perform well above statewide averages. And with “common core standards” — a new curriculum and assessment initiative that emphasizes real-time data in the pipeline — those numbers are expected to go up.

Let's not break the momentum by cutting off a funding opportunity, triggering additional layoffs and increasing class sizes.

Glendale Unified is repeating a smart move it executed in the spring, and hosting three meetings this month to explain the financial realities facing the district.

The first took place Monday. Next up is Oct. 15 at Glendale High School and Oct. 22 at Hoover High School. All the meetings will run from 7 to 8:30 p.m.

Make time to attend. I promise that you will learn something. Heck, if teachers can make time between creating lessons, teaching classes and grading papers to get involved, then you can too.

“I think we owe it to our students and their families to do as much as we can to help them,” said Kim Labinger, who teaches first grade at Edison Elementary School.

They might even hand you a decal like the one my hosts gave me after my visit to the union office. It is now affixed to the rear window of my car.

It reads “No on 32, Yes on 30.”

MEGAN O'NEIL is a former education reporter for Times Community News and current graduate student at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. She may be reached at megan.oneil.06@gmail.com.

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