More money to schools but less going to the classroom

Aug 22, 2018 by

...escalating obligations for retirement benefits grow so fast (more than 100 percent this decade in many districts) that they gobble up the rising funding, leaving little for today’s students and teachers.

Call it the Great California School Squeeze.

The state is stuck in a school-funding paradox: Even though our schools have never had higher per-pupil spending levels, school districts face financial peril.

Why? Because the Squeeze is a torture machine with three ratchets.

First, escalating obligations for retirement benefits grow so fast (more than 100 percent this decade in many districts) that they gobble up the rising funding, leaving little for today’s students and teachers.


There are as many as 35,000 California classrooms that only lock from the outside — putting the teachers in those classrooms at risk during a lockdown, according to state estimates. For years, teachers and a few state lawmakers have been trying to get schools to replace the locks on those doors, only to be told it would cost too much. Newer classrooms already are required to have so-called Columbine locks, which can be locked from the inside, on their doors. They were named after the school shooting in Columbine High School. The newest versions can even be secured with the wave of a key fob.

Second, with birth rates low and immigration stagnant, the number of students is stagnant in some districts, and declining in others. Because school funding is granted on a per-student basis, fewer students can mean less funding, even at the higher rates.

Third, the state’s new spending formula and measurement systems are requiring schools to tackle very difficult social challenges — poverty, inequality, and achievement gaps that leave behind minority students.

The Squeeze, in essence, requires schools to produce millions more educated California adults out of a smaller student population, even as retirees grab a larger share of available funds.

Doing that might be impossible, but it’s also essential if California is to reverse its education decline.

In 1970, according to a Chapman University report, Californians were better educated than the average American; the state had a higher percentage of adults with college degrees — and a lower proportion of adults with less than a high school education — than the nation as a whole. By 2012, California had the second-highest percentage of adults with less than a high school education in the country (and had fallen to 14th in the percentage of adults with college degrees).

Reversing such trends requires huge new investment. But under the Squeeze, school districts are freezing budgets, laying off teachers, limiting instructional hours (my youngest son starts half-day kindergarten this week) and, in districts from Oakland to Pasadena, moving to close schools. And this is in good times. When recession hits and the markets crash, the Squeeze could force massive cuts and even district bankruptcies.

Where could new money come from? Not today’s kids and teachers, who are already taking hits under the Squeeze. Even if it were legal to claw back pensions from retired teachers, it wouldn’t be fair, because teacher pensions are modest and teachers aren’t eligible for Social Security. Unfortunately, there is no way to recover money from previous state and local politicians who made retirement promises without properly funding or disclosing them. (Much of the Squeeze comes from recent efforts to catch up on district contributions to pension funds after years of underfunding.)

If you’re surprised to be reading all of this, that is by design. School districts often hide their growing retiree obligations deep in budget documents. Powerful teachers unions mislead the public by blaming their favorite bogeyman, charter schools, for the Squeeze.

Political candidates offer few ideas for tackling the Squeeze.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t any.

While teacher and school staff pensions must be protected, cost-of-living increases should freeze, and school districts should stop giving retiree health benefits, which are unfunded. Retired teachers can rely on Obamacare, Medicaid and Medicare like the rest of us.

Of course, the savings from such changes won’t be nearly enough to escape the Squeeze, but they should provide more dollars for today’s teachers. As David Crane of Govern for California has shown, school districts from San Francisco to Fresno now devote less than half of revenue to salaries for today’s teachers.

But breaking the grip of the Squeeze will require much more.

Two big, dysfunctional systems hurt kids. One is a complex tax system, built around Proposition 13, that protects older homeowners. The other is a complex education funding system, built around Proposition 98, that ties education spending to the budget and economy, rather than to students’ needs. It effectively acts as a cap on education spending.

Both systems need replacing. The Prop. 98 funding formula should die, and education funding should be tied to educational needs. Doing that would require tens of billions of new dollars each year, which in turn would require a wholesale tax reform.

Even such transformational reforms might not be enough for schools, now that the state’s leading Democrats want to grab new tax dollars to provide a single-payer universal health care system. That might be a worthy goal. But California first needs to rescue kids from the Squeeze crushing our single-payer education system.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.

Source: More money to schools but less going to the classroom – SFGate

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.