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Governor Brown sends the wrong message about education

Randall F. Clemens

Last week, Governor Jerry Brown described his 2012 budget proposal, which included a $5.2 billion cut in education if voters do not approve a tax increase on the ballot this November. Of the total, Brown plans to cut $4.8 billion in K-12 public school funding—the equivalent of three weeks of schooling—and $200 million to the University of California and Cal State systems. Although the cuts are only an option, Governor Brown is sending the wrong message about education.

In a previous blog, I discussed the relationship between funding and the achievement gap. Scholars and politicians used to frame spending debates around the relationship between money and achievement. The conclusion was that spending does not always equal gains. The results illustrated the need to focus on processes, along with inputs (money) and outputs (achievement). The entire argument, however, presupposed that governments would provide enough money for districts and schools to operate. 

Governor Brown’s proposed cuts highlight an alarming trend in education—the unwillingness to fund education even after all agree that it is essential to the present and future success of the nation. Even taking into consideration spending during the “new normal,” these cuts are shocking. Education in California is already under-funded, and many districts are in fiscal disrepair. The possibility of more cuts places districts in a precarious position. As Superintendent John Deasy points out, Los Angeles Unified has to plan for money that does not exist and decide whether or not to cut a number of programs.

Skeptics point to over a century of unsuccessful reforms as evidence of the futility of government spending on education. Why put money into a system that perpetually underachieves? This perspective, however, ignores important contextual factors like urban poverty and access to social services. Of all industrialized countries, the United States has the highest percentage of children in poverty and provides the fewest social supports, e.g. housing, health-care, and child-care assistance. Similarly, arguments against government spending ignore the recent successes of countries across the globe. A recent article in The Atlantic describes the successes of Finland as educators focus on equity, not test scores. In The Flat World and Education, Linda Darling-Hammond chronicles the turnarounds of Finland, South Korea, and Singapore. What is the common denominator? All three countries’ governments committed to spending money to improve education.

When will education become a priority in California?