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Editorial

As Budget Deadlock Drags On, the Pressure Builds

May 5, 2011

The clock is ticking in Sacramento, and across the state. Gradually, the pressure’s building for some kind of resolution to the long-running state budget stalemate.

And as is always the case when the pressure starts to become intense, sooner or later, something has to give.

You can see the signs in many different places. Last week, two statewide polls were released, with each showing broad support among voters for Gov. Brown’s proposal to put a ballot proposition before voters, and let them approve (or reject) an extension of sales and income taxes, as an alternative to the much-dreaded “all-cuts budget.”

The Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) released a poll that found high levels of concern about the impact of further cuts on education (especially teacher layoffs), broad support for Brown’s proposed special election on tax extensions, and overwhelming support of local control of how education funding is spent by school districts.

Another survey – the USC Dornsife/LA Times Poll – found that less than 30 percent of voters want an “all-cuts budget,” while 63 percent supported the idea of tax extensions to protect K-12 education from further reductions. This survey also indicated strong support for Brown’s idea of a statewide proposition that would give voters the opportunity to decide.

At the same time, the pressure for a resolution to the budget stalemate is building at the local level. Veteran education reporter Sharon Noguchi of the San Jose Mercury recently published a revealing story under the all-too-relevant headline: “Public schools: is California’s middle class heading for the exit?”  As Noguchi put it (bluntly) in her first paragraph, “Parents are asking: How much more can California lop off public education before they bolt for private schools?”

In the Silicon Valley area – where tech companies like Apple, Google and Facebook are enjoying banner years and rapid expansion, along with healthy profit margins – Noguchi’s question is not rhetorical. Silicon Valley parents, like others around the state, are worried because they see local schools (which serve their children) laying off teachers and cutting back on programs, mostly because of the budget fiasco in Sacramento. But in Silicon Valley parents, where many companies have turned the corner and are growing (even as much of the rest of California’s economy continues to suffer from the recession of the last few years), the parents feel they have a choice to make.  If the public schools are fated to provide students with half-a-loaf in terms of education, many of these parents have sufficient income that they can consider the possibility of bailing out and moving on.

That concern is also manifest in the election results for 13 different school parcel tax proposals that went before voters in all-mail elections during April and May.  It is significant that almost all of these parcel tax measures were proposed in the San Francisco Bay Area – where the regional economy is by and large on the upswing.  Nine of those school parcel tax proposals were approved by local voters, who chose to take the matter of school funding into their own hands by approving extra taxes to support classroom programs.

More specifically, those parcel tax measures were approved in Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties (home to the resurgent tech industry), and in Davis (a university town with a three-decade record of approving school parcel tax measures to enhance science, language and music programs in the local schools).  The school parcel tax measures that failed were in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, where the economic recovery to date has been less robust. And even with the four school parcel tax measures that failed, they received voter support in the high 50 percent or low-to-mid 60 percent range, which would be a solid majority in an ordinary election.

We are always pleased to see local voters supporting their schools, both financially and in other ways as well. But we do worry that California is moving toward a two-tier school system, with better schools (offering a broader array of learning opportunities and more in-depth courses) emerging in the state’s more affluent and better-educated communities, while families in communities where it’s politically impossible to reach a two-thirds majority for passage of a local parcel tax forced to settle for a distinctly less robust academic program due to the inadequate funding their local district receives from the state.

We’d rather see a more equitable situation across the state, with districts receiving enough money to sustain their local programs without those districts having to turn to local voters, asking for money again (and again).

But to get to that desired outcome, elected representatives in Sacramento are going to have to hammer out a deal, and then live with it. Legislative Republicans, who have taken a hard line in opposition to any new tax revenues, will have to yield a bit. Legislative Democrats will probably have to give some ground on the topic of pension reform, which is an issue that Republicans are keen to address. We agree with Governor Brown that a budget solution that’s endorsed by voters is preferable to a backroom legislative deal worked out at the midnight hour – but that’s not going to go down well with stakeholder groups like the California Teachers Association, which would prefer a near-term legislative budget agreement to a statewide election sometime in the fall, in large part because too many CTA members stand to lose jobs over the summer (now that it’s too late to put a ballot proposition before voters in June).

There are no easy answers, but a greater degree of flexibility – from all parties and stakeholders involved – is really the only way that a budget deal that will ultimately be acceptable to most (if not all) of the parties involved can ever be achieved.

And in the meantime, the pressure builds.