California Not So Golden

In response to California’s $14 billion state budget deficit, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed cutting $4.8 billion from public education. More than 14,000 teachers have received layoff notices. The Saddleback Valley Unified School District (SVUSD), where I have two children in the 2nd & 5th grades, is faced with $19.3 million in budget cuts.

Under the Governor’s scenario, SVUSD would have to eliminate 228 tenured and temporary teachers, abolish the International Baccalaureate program and cut elementary school music classes. Oh, and the district would also increase class sizes in grades 1-3 to 30 students from 20. Now that’s going to enhance learning – having 1 teacher handle 30 first graders. Parents know it’s such a walk in the park taking care of just one first grader. No school district is being spared.

Let’s try to put this in perspective. The economy is slumping. America is faced with fierce international competition. And then there is the Iraq war – which in addition to the human toll costs American taxpayers over $7 billion a month.

It’s all about priorities. So as we slash support for K-12 education, guest what our competitors are doing? Do you think they are helping America shoulder the burden in Iraq?

Well, in 2006 China announced a 15-year plan to boost science, technology and innovation with the ultimate goal of becoming the preeminent global economic and technology power. China is pouring investments into its universities to create world class education and research centers. I recently asked a prominent Orange County high-tech executive who frequently travels to China on business if the Chinese have moved ahead of us in science and innovation. His response:  they have “eaten our lunch.”

Here in the US, American kids’ math and science proficiency remains unacceptably low. While 4th and 8th graders have improved somewhat, our high school seniors test at or near the bottom in math and science compared to other industrialized nations. This means too few are prepared to pursue technical careers. Thousands of technology jobs continue to go unfilled because not enough Americans possess the requisite skills. And on top of this, the United States continues to close our workforce safety valve by denying visas to highly skilled and educated foreign nationals. These best and brightest do not come here and take American jobs; they create jobs by developing intellectual property, spawning innovation and founding companies.

Here’s the sobering reality: The United States has slipped to sixth internationally in the number of engineering degrees awarded annually. China graduates at least four times as many engineers and Japan graduates twice as many. South Korea – with one-sixth the population – graduates roughly the same number of engineers as the United States. It also leads the world in broadband diffusion, while we rank 16th.

You think they are smiling in Beijing?

I am not an apologist for public education. It has major flaws including a bloated bureaucracy. And many teachers need additional training to properly educate our kids, particularly elementary school children, on important concepts in subjects like math and science. But these proposed cuts show a glaring lack of leadership and political will.

I have been asked what can we do, as parents, voters and taxpayers? First, you should contact your local state legislators. In my case it’s Senate Republican Leader Dick Ackerman and Assemblyman Todd Spitzer.

Additionally, what needs to happen is for the Governor, state legislative leaders (and congressional reps too-the federal gov. provides substantial funding to K-12 education and is a crucial stakeholder) and key stakeholders including the influential California Teachers Association (CTA), PTAs and student leaders (yes – we should ask students what they think) to lock themselves in a room and put everything on the table including meaningful reforms such as training teachers to implement the Singapore math model and implementing sensible reductions in bureaucracy. And increasing taxes must be on the table. Why do I say taxes should be on the table? I don’t want my taxes increased but if these cuts are enacted, guess who will be pressed to fork over additional funding to our local school foundations, bake sales and silent auctions to offset the state reductions? You got it –us parents.

Above all, they need to demonstrate a will and long-term vision for providing our kids a 21st century education. If they do that, they just might get enough popular support to turn California golden again and make our competitors sweat a little.

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