Full and Fair Funding for Schools is No Laughing Matter

Vernon M. Billy
California School Boards Association CEO & Executive Director

Dear Mr. Mathews,

We appreciate the levity of your recent column, California’s School Boards are Such Class Clowns. It helps to have a sense of humor when you reside in a state that ranks first nationally in gross domestic product, but only 41st in education funding. It’s a joke, really, but gallows humor only goes so far as a means of coping with decades of underinvestment in public education. Eventually, you have to take action if you want to see meaningful change; that’s why CSBA is calling on the Legislature to raise per-pupil funding to the national average by 2020 and to the average of the top 10 states by 2025.

Your rejection of this idea is based on the premise that “everyone knows that school funding was long ago decided by voters by initiative and constitutional amendment” and that “no lawmaker in their right mind” would seek to change the current school funding formulas. You must then also know that Proposition 98 was written to be the floor – the absolute minimum for school funding – not the ceiling.

Prop 98 was not designed to provide the resources that would allow all students to receive a high-quality education. Not surprisingly, it provides only a fraction of that. If we want all children to achieve at high levels, then we must create conditions that are conducive to success. That starts by giving our schools the resources needed to prepare all students for success in college, career and civic life.

Prop 98 was passed in 1988, three decades ago and lightyears away from today’s increasingly global, complex, competitive and technological world. California is supposed to be the home of American innovation and creativity. Why, then, would we tie ourselves to outmoded formulas from a bygone age, formulas that were never sufficient to meet the needs of students in the first place?

Our state’s approach to school funding is fundamentally a question of priorities, not mechanics. Full and fair funding for public schools does not require the elimination of Prop 98, as you suggested. There is room within Prop 98 to raise the floor and provide more than subsistence-level funding. We also have the option to start fresh and design a school funding formula that makes sense for today’s world. What’s not acceptable is to “punt” on this generation of students or lapse into a craven cynicism that sees only obstacles and not opportunities.

CSBA is not content to sit on the sidelines or engage in defeatist attitudes about our judicial or legislative institutions. We led a coalition that took the case for full and fair funding to the California Supreme Court. We argued in Robles-Wong v. State of California that the State Constitution guarantees the right to a quality education. By a 4-3 margin, the Court declined to hear the case, stating that, “We whole heartedly agree with appellants that the provision of a quality education for all public school students is an important goal for society as it ensures full participation in our constitutional democracy,” before concluding that “The quandary described in the complaint is lamentable, but the remedy lies squarely with the Legislature, not the judiciary.”

As the Supreme Court suggested, we are now taking this issue to our legislators. We’re urging them to fulfill their Constitutional and moral obligation to provide resources that will allow all students –regardless of background – access to a high-quality education. Will it be hard? Certainly. Will there be adversaries? Of course. Is the cause worthy of the challenge? Without question.

CSBA is determined to secure full and fair school funding because it’s what right for our students and what’s good for our state. The answers to our most pressing concerns: economic vitality, social cohesion, public health, and strong, sustainable communities will be found in an educated populace prepared to tackle the problems of today and create a better tomorrow.

California has the world’s sixth largest economy, yet ranks only 45th nationally in the percentage of revenue spent on K-12 schools. If other, poorer states can find a way to prioritize education, we can, too. Right now, we are taking this fight to the Legislature. If that doesn’t succeed, we will take it to the people and to the ballot box.

You find this “hilarious” and said the “the comedy here works on so many levels.” I’ll consider that a rave review. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Now that we’ve reached the laughter stage, victory draws ever closer.

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