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Apodaca: Public education hangs in the balance this election season

October 06, 2012|By Patrice Apodaca

Have you ever been in a building when a fire alarm sounds, and everyone pauses and looks around, not wanting to make the first move or appear the panicked fool who rushes to the exit first?

Probably just a false alarm; that's usually the case, we think. And so we hesitate and weigh the risks of hurriedly leaving our comfortable seats and looking uncool in the process versus the very real possibility that the whole blasted place is about to burn to the ground.

That's where we are with public education in California. The house is on fire and, given its already dilapidated condition, the flames will do quick and devastating work. Yet here we are, wondering whether to toss one measly bucket of water to keep the inferno in check.

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The bucket of water, in this scenario, is Proposition 30, Gov. Jerry Brown's proposal for a temporary increase in the sales tax and in taxes on incomes of more than $250,000.

On Nov. 6, voters will decide the initiative's fate. If it's rejected, California will immediately slash $6 billion annually from a budget that's already been subjected to deep cuts. Under state law, that would trigger an automatic reduction of $4.8 billion in K-12 funding — the equivalent of about three weeks of school — another $1 billion from higher education, and assorted other education cuts.

Keep in mind that California ranks 47th out of the 50 states in per-student spending, and remains near the bottom of national rankings on reading and math. Many districts have already axed several days from the school year, boosted class sizes, and eliminated enrichment programs. Cal State and University of California tuitions have risen sharply, and good luck to community college students trying to get the classes they need.

If Proposition 30 fails, here's a sampling of what would probably happen next: Districts teetering on the brink of insolvency would get a final push. What's left of publicly funded arts and music instruction will die. Science programs will evaporate. School libraries will close. Math clinics will be subtracted. Counselors would be advised to update their resumes. More students will be stuffed into crowded classrooms. School terms will shrink. College costs will rise — again — while class offerings will decline — again.

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