How to fix the education divide- more beginnings

Speak Out California’s resident expert and former Assemblymember, School Board member and long-time teacher, Jackie Goldberg continues her commentary on the state of education in California today-and what we need to do to improve the quality of education we are providing to all our students.
With recent reports indicating that California will not have enough well-educated and trained people to meet its workforce needs over the next several decades, it is critical that we start NOW and work to close that gap.
Here is what Jackie Goldberg has to say on one of the most critical yet controversial areas of educational reform in California—how to continue Class size reduction, including a passionate pitch for ways we can pull together the funding necessary to close the education gap in our state:

In my last blog entry of June 7th, 2007, I talked about the need for class size reduction for all students whose achievement in core subjects is below grade level. For California students in grades 4-8, that is probably about 1,225,000 students. Currently we are spending about $1.676 billion (at a rate of $986 per student) to reduce class size to 20:1 for children in Kindergarten through grade 3. But that cost is what we spend for ALL students, not just those below grade level in achievement. If we were spending just to reduce class size to 20:1 for students in deciles 1-5 (the lowest performing), it would probably cost about $1.208 billion for those bottom 1/2 of achievers.
How much money is $1.208 billion? Well, it is about 2.4% of the annual budget spent on K-12 education in California. That is certainly alot of money. If Governor Davis had not reduced class size for those already achieving at or above grade level, there would already be about $1.66 billion available, more than enough to meet the needed money for grades 4-8 to reduce class size for these underperforming schools. But the “politically correct” thing to do was done, and the money was distributed equally, without regard to which schools and students truly need the additional money. It’s the old “one-size-fits-all” sort of thinking that is gumming up the works. We want outcomes to be the same for all students, but the resources to achieve those outcomes are not going to be identical. And yet, in California as in the rest of the nation, more money per student is spent on those students from middle class and wealthy families than is spent on students from working class and working poor families where greater resources are needed to get those desired identical outcomes.
Nonetheless, that bell has been rung and we are not going to take money away from anyone to give it to others. Therefore, the $1.208 billion will have to come from “new money” if we are really going to improve the achievement of those performing below grade level. Well, there are many places to look for these additional funds if anyone is willing to decide that spending money on young people is truly an investment in the economy and well-being of all Californians.
Back when I first went to Sacramento, and the bottom fell out of the “dot-com” stocks which caused a multi-billion dollar hole in the State’s budget, the Speaker of the Assembly asked Assemblyman John Dutra ( a “business” Democrat) and me (a “liberal” Democrat) to come up with proposals that the center-right, center and center-left of the Assembly could all buy-into. Assemblyman Dutra and I spent literally hundreds of hours (along with our staffs) researching other states, and how they were able to pay so much more per student for their schools than we do. Well, it’s hardly a surprise to learn that those other states never voluntarily reduced their tax base the way we have in California. For example, between 1997 and 2002, taxes in California were cut a total of $25.576 billion. That comes out to an average of about $4.26 billion each year! Vehicle License Fee Reductions alone equal almost $12 billion during those 6 years.
Since 2000, the only people who have been subjected to a tax increase have been teachers (who lost their income tax credit to offset what they pay out of their own pockets for their students and classroom needs), students at our Community Colleges, UC and CSU campuses (who have seend astronomical rises in student tuition and fees), and those on Medicaid or who receive General Relief
–where their cost of living increases have been frozen or eliminate outright.
“No new taxes” has become a mantra that means the rich have truly become further enriched by both federal and state tax reductions, while the middle class have floundered and the poor have truly become destitute. And our schools have suffered as a result. If we had the political will to truly invest in our children and youth, a few simple tax changes could reduce class size in grades 4-8 fo all those who are underachieving. Let’s see how many easy ways there are to come up with $1.208 billion:
First, reinstating the upper income tax brackets (as Pete Wilson did when his budget didn’t meet the needs of California) would generate $2.58 billion all by itself. That would be more than enough money and would allow us extend class size reduction for core classes (English, Science, History and Math) in grades 9-12 for those not at grade level achievement.
Now, here’s the kicker: Because we get to deduct our state taxes from the ones we owe the Feds, a single taxpayer would need to have a gross taxable income (that’s after deductions) of $200,000 or more before it adds a dime in new taxes. A married couple would need $400,000 and then their total net tax would be increased by a total of $583! That means that only the truly wealthy would pay a bit more, and then not much. For that married couple with gross taxable income, that comes to slightly more than $46 per month. And that would change everything for low and very low income students.
But say you don’t want to insist that the richest 1% of Californians have to shell out a few pennies to the truly underserved and underperforming children in our state, what else could we do to improve their academic performance and their hopes for a positive future? We could reinstate the 2% Vehicle License Fee on automobiles valued at $25,000 or more (that’s about 8% of the cars on the road today).
This would yield at least $1.103 billion each year. That’s an extra $165 a year on a $25,000 car, and that extra amount would be deductible from the owner’s federal income tax, making the final cost even less.
What else could we do to help our youngsters? Well, we could join most other states and tax some business-to-business services the same 5% sales tax we currently charge for products we buy at the store. The list could include and would yield:
Management, scientific and technical consulting services………………… $481.6 million
Engineering, architectural and surveying services…………………………… 961.5 million
Total for 2 ” business-to-business ” services $1.445 billion
You see, California is a wealthy state with an economy that is the 5th or 6th largest in the world. The top 5% of Californians pay about 7.8% of their income in taxes while the lowest 20% of income earners pay 12.1% of their income in taxes of one kind or another. That is regressive and backwards. In a truly fair and progressive tax system, taxpayers pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes as their income goes up. Under Republicans and sadly with the help of some Democrats, this trend has been reversed in the last 30 years. The rich are getting richer and paying less while the poor are getting poorer and paying more.
But instead of having the political will to raise taxes a small amount to help millions of students, we are raising tuition at state colleges and universities instead. We are also refusing to appropriately fund health and human services in California for the sick, the elderly, the disabled and the desperately poor.
How rich is California? In 2003, California was home to 49 Billionaires with a combined net worth of $102.9 Billion. We have more millionaires per capita than any state in the nation. The California Motor Car Dealers Association reported nearly $60 billion in new car sales in California in 2001.
And yet, we “give away” tax revenue at a mind-boggling rate. The Legislature passed $4 billion in tax cuts which were signed by Governor Davis in his first term, while Governor Schwarzenegger took Executive action and reduced taxes by another $4 billion on his first DAY in office. Right there is a loss of $8 billion a year in a very short period of time, offering little time to evaluate or adjust to its impacts. That is why every year during budget negotiations in June, the debate in Sacramento on the budget is what to CUT to balance the budget.
Our priorities have become skewed. We want what we want but we don’t want to pay for it. We want our children to perform in school, but we aren’t willing to do what is necessary to make it happen. Reducing class size will make mediocre teachers into very good ones; and very good teachers into excellent ones. It will mean that new teachers, currently facing 35-40 students in their classes will actually have time to help those who are not achieving at grade level. And if you care about test scores (which I personally do not) it will raise test scores dramatically, especially if we also decentralize decision-making on how to teach, not what we want students to know and know how to do…..
But more on other needed education policy reforms next time.