Wednesday, March 09, 2005 | Gov

On Feb. 24, I witnessed the humiliating scene of local educators groveling for funds for our children and schools. They pleaded to save the minimum guaranteed funding that voters approved with Prop 98 and to stop the hemorrhaging caused by years of devastating budget cuts. One by one members of a panel laid bare the reality of operating our anorexic schools on a diet of PTA fundraisers and slim fast program reductions. It was pathetic.

The event was the Town Hall Meeting held by the California State Senate Budget Subcommittee on Education at the San Diego County office of Education. Similar meetings have been held in Long Beach and San Jose. Committee members Senators Scott and Simitian were joined by local officials Senator Christine Kehoe and Assembly member Lori Saldana. Absent were their Republican counterparts who refuse to attend these meetings.

Why are Republicans AWOL when it comes to our kids and schools? Because the remedy for California schools runs contrary to their unwavering “No taxes, no way, ever, never” juggernaut. Their sworn oath to this mantra supercedes their oath of office and their responsibilities as lawmakers. They don’t care to hear the nasty truth – that they are starving our schools of resources needed to educate our children and meet the high standards set by the state and federal governments.

Investment in education makes a difference. Prior to the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, California spent $600 more per student than the national average and California had the best schools in the country. Thirty years later, we spend $400 less than the average and rank about 44th. Our test scores have followed the same trajectory. Study after study shows that investment and achievement go hand-in-hand in education.

Our penny wise and pound foolish politicians have given us schools that rank dead last in the nation in the ratio of students to staff, principals and assistant principals, guidance counselors and librarians according to the National Center for Education Statistics in 2002. While California ranks 9th in per capita income, we rank 25th in per capita spending for education. By contrast, California is ranked 8th in spending for prisons and 4th for police and fire protection. Clearly, if education were a higher political priority, it would receive higher funding.

The good news is that a large group of educational leaders including teachers, parents, administrators, trustees and staff stood in solidarity and vowed to stop the carnage in our schools. We are demanding that lawmakers uphold the mandate of California voters who made public education their number one priority when they passed the Proposition 98 to guarantee of minimum funding. We are holding Governor Schwarzenegger to his promise to repay the $2 billion that he borrowed from our schools last year. And we will bring pressure to bear on all legislators to make a commitment to adequately fund our schools.

Public officials who don’t support public education don’t belong in office. Public education is the foundation of our democracy, the door to opportunity for each child and the fuel of our economic engine. It’s high time that voters demand an oath from our elected officials – an oath to adequately fund our public schools.

And yes, our children are of special interest. They are and should be the biggest, most important and most precious special interest. They are our flesh and blood and our future. Others paid the price to educate us when we were children. Let us not shirk our duty. No society has ever succeeded by downgrading the education of its youth.

Francine Busby is a long-time advocate for public education. She serves as Trustee Cardiff School Board and a is a Board member of the Cardiff Education Foundation. Francine ran for Congress as the Democratic candidate in the 50th district in November 2004 on a platform that included a call to restore local control of schools and fully fund state and federal mandates.

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