January 17, 2014

When Fiscal Restraint is a Flop

Governor Jerry Brown has released his 2014-15 budget proposal, the last of his current term. Our improving economy makes this one less painful than the last. So it is all the more disappointing that the Governor is ramping up his overly-cautious approach to restoring funding for the programs and services that benefit California’s most needy residents.

For the past few months, Brown has repeatedly spoken about the need for fiscal restraint, despite the rising tide of our economy. Recently, California’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office announced that the state is past its financial crisis, and will have a $5.6 billion surplus by June 2015. That number is expected to increase to $8.3 billion by the 2016-17 budget year. Brown, firmly occupying the middle ground where he has grown increasingly comfortable these last few years, acknowledges there are more resources to go around while at the same time advocating an approach I can’t support—pushing for voters to approve an overly-large rainy day fund, while failing to back the oil severance tax proposed by State Sen. Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa)and asking for legislators to hold off on restoring money for critical social services.

This is not the Brown of the 1970s, a man shaped by his Jesuit teachings and inspired by Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King. But then, this is not the same era, either. Brown no longer has the cultural ferment or social movements of the 1970’s encouraging boldness and pushing him to be more progressive.

 

We live in a period where organized labor and social justice movements don't have the power they once had to shift the political landscape in a more progressive direction. As a result, the Governor, like many politicians of his generation, has tacked to the political center and now cautions restraint.

But sometimes caution is not what is needed. With income disparity more profound than at any point since the Great Depression, this is a time to be bold, not cautious. In 2012, when the Governor urged support for a cautious tax measure, the CFT and our community partners offered a courageous alternative called the Millionaires Tax. Ultimately Prop 30 won because the Governor finally agreed to merge his measure with the bolder elements of the Millionaires Tax.

I believe one of the most important legacies Brown can leave is a strong public school system that serves students of every economic and social stratum – a system that gives our kids the foundation they need to achieve higher education and go forward to dream and build the California of the future. His move to create Local Control Funding and put more money into schools with our most at risk and poorest students is an important step in that direction. But much more is needed.

That means restoring funding, but even more importantly, it means providing leadership. While I think that Governor Brown shares the ideals of the progressive community when it comes to education, as he has demonstrated with his critique on the overreliance on standardized testing, we need him to be a strong voice against market reforms in our schools and the well-funded, on-going effort to scapegoat teachers and education unions for the so-called crisis of public education.

The real crisis in our schools is not that teachers aren’t working hard enough or that they need incentives, but rather that deepening poverty and massive underfunding are victimizing millions of children in poor and working class communities. According to a report released in October by the California Budget Project, California currently ranks 51st nationally in students per teacher, and student enrollment rates in community colleges have dropped to a 20-year low in the wake of unprecedented cuts in state funding.

Between 2007-08 and 2011-12, the community college system sustained $1.5 billion in budget cuts. State support for the UC and CSU remains significantly below 2007-08 levels and reductions to Cal Grant awards for in-state students from lower-income families remain in place, a barrier for many fighting for the middle-class advantages an advanced degree can bring. It’s now reality that our kindergartens are bursting with more than 30 kids in a room, while those lucky enough to afford college experience delays in graduation or drop out because enrollment is so impacted that they can’t get into classes—not to mention graduates whose achievement is compromised by unprecedented levels of student debt.

Addressing these issues should be Brown’s bequest to California, the focus of his next and last term. Brown is in the home stretch of his career, and these next few years will be remembered. As the Governor pushes hard on legacy-builders like the High Speed Rail project and the Delta tunnels, I hope he remembers that education is lasting infrastructure, too. In fact, it is the most vital form of infrastructure there is. Without an educated citizenry and workforce, our democracy and economy will never truly be sound, no matter how much we deposit in our rainy day fund.

 

Joshua Pechthalt is the president of the California Federation of Teachers.

For more information please visit: www.cft.org