With the state and various cities on the brink of insolvency, it’s imperative that the electorate become more informed and demand that school districts and teachers unions do their negotiating in public.

This past Sunday’s Los Angeles Times above-the-fold headline screamed “Voters back tax hikes for schools.” It was déja-vu all over again. As I wrote in September,

“… a poll which is biased and does not take into account the knowledge of the people being polled is misleading and dangerous. The public is led to believe that the responders are perceptive and knowledgeable, when in reality so many are not.”

(And I could have added that a poll that misleads or misinforms its respondents is the most dangerous of all; I’ll address that shortly.)

The Times article reported that a USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences/Los Angeles Times Frequency Questionnaire released last week showed that 61 percent of those surveyed said they would pay higher taxes to boost school funding.

As I read those words, I wondered,
• What do those people really know about the amount we already spend on education? For example, do they know that over 50 percent of the state’s general fund spending already goes to education?
• Do they know how much is wasted on an excessive number of administrators and useless bureaucrats?
• Do they understand that due to an archaic tenure system, it can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to try to rid a school system of one incompetent or criminal teacher?
• Do they know the average teacher’s salary and how much more they get in additional healthcare and pension compensation?
• Do they know that teachers can pad their pay by taking useless “professional development” classes that can “earn” them an extra million dollars in their careers and retirement?
• Do they know that practically every teacher contract in the state has a provision whereby teachers who are union representatives get classroom time off each month to do union business while the taxpayers foot the bill for the rep’s substitute teacher?
• Do they know that it is the taxpayer supported school district, not the teachers unions, that collects the union dues that teachers are forced to pay in this state?
• Do they know that California already has one of the highest sales and income tax rates in the country?

There was one question where the pollsters intended to educate the people by including the following “information.” They asked,

“As you may know, California currently ranks forty-second out of the fifty states in funding per student. (Bold added.) Would you favor or oppose increasing funding for California’s public schools, even if it meant an increase in your own taxes?” 61 percent responded that they would favor raising taxes.

The problem with the pollster’s information is that it is very misleading. California is not “forty-second out of the fifty states in funding per student.”

As Sacramento Bee writer Dan Walters pointed out in a column on November 13th, doomsday statistics regarding education matters are typically provided by special interest groups like the National Education Association. What agenda-driven groups typically do is take regional costs such as standard of living into account which skews the numbers in a way that benefits them.

A more objective source like the Census Bureau,

“…surveys all forms of school spending and pegs California’s per-pupil number at $11,588, just $662 under the national average and 27th-highest in the nation….
“And it’s much higher in some big-city school systems, such as Los Angeles Unified, which has more than 600,000 students, spends $14,100 per pupil and has about a 50 percent high-school dropout rate.”

The non-partisan California Legislative Analysts Office has the state in 31st place in school spending.

The whole spending issue becomes even more convoluted, because typically school districts don’t count capital expenses, e.g. the cost of school buildings, in their per-student spending. Since students don’t take classes at the beach or in a field, these costs must be included to give the public an idea of the true cost of educating a child. Including capital costs, the dollar amount that Adam Schaeffer of the Cato Institute came up with for Los Angeles Unified is $25,208 per year.

Mike Antonucci, director of the Education Intelligence Agency, looks at the situation from another perspective. Last May, he pointed out,

“The latest Census Bureau report provides details of the 2008-09 school year, as the nation was in the midst of the recession.”

He then breaks the national numbers down state by state and in California, we find that for the years 2003-2004 to 2008-2009 school enrollment went down 87,548 or 1.4%, but at the same time we added over 3,000 teachers (1.1%) and spending went up a whopping 24.1%.

So even in a time period which included a world wide recession, we see a big increase in spending and a shrinking teacher/student ratio.

The bottom line is that we should not let special interests get away with using skewed data in an attempt to con the public. People need to become better consumers by making a concerted effort to become more informed about what we really spend on education.

One way to accomplish this would be for the public to get directly involved with teacher contract negations. As Education Action Group’s Steve Gunn wrote last week,

“Local taxpayers across the nation cough up millions of dollars every year to fund their local schools. About 75 percent of those schools’ budgets are dominated by labor costs, mostly negotiated union labor costs.” (Bold added.)

“But there’s nothing they can do to address that concern if compensation is negotiated behind their backs.”

And in fact, public scrutiny is a reality. School districts in Idaho, New Jersey, New York and elsewhere have gone public with their contract negotiations.

If Californians don’t become more informed and demand public access to teacher’s contract negotiations — and in fact all public employee contract negotiations — they will continue to let the special interests have their way while the taxpayers get to pay and pay and pay. However there is a limit to the fiscal abuse that the formerly Golden State can stand before it becomes insolvent.

About the author: Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

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    2 Responses to California’s Looming Fiscal Disaster: Sunlight and an Informed Public are the Best Disinfectants

    1. In the San Diego Unified School District, tin 2013 the already negotiated (with labor) personnel costs alone come to over 100% of the district’s general fund — BEFORE the anticipated “trigger cuts” take effect.

      Madness.

    2. I should add that the SDUSD is the second largest school district in the state.

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