Can Money Buy The Governor Love—And Peace With Educators?

Thursday, January 13, 2022
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This is one of those columns when, in describing what transpired in California’s state capital this week, one symbol is as good as a thousand words: $.

That’s a dollar sign—as in, so much money sloshing around in Governor Newsom’s budget proposal unveiled at the beginning of the week that one’s head spins.

Forget about the $262 billion budget that Newsom signed into law last summer. If the governor has his way—i.e., California’s state legislature chooses not to engage in horse trading, which won’t happen given that pork-barrel spending and election years pair like wine and cheese—the next state budget would surpass $286 billion (here’s the plan in detail).

California’s budget beginning in the summer of 1994 and my first year of employment in Sacramento as a gubernatorial aide? Just $57.5 billion (almost $108 billion in today’s dollars).

The most controversial aspect of Newsom’s plan you probably know by now: the governor proposing to extend Medi-Cal coverage (California’s version of Medicaid) to all low-income, undocumented adults. If that happens, the Golden State becomes the first state in America to provide universal health access to all residents regardless of their legal status.

As such, that represents a sea change from this point in time nearly three decades ago, when California was bracing for an initiative battle over illegal immigration—in November 1994 and amidst a state and national backlash at the polls, California voters approving Proposition 187 and saying no to public services (health care, education) for those in the Golden State without legal status.

As possessing even one billion dollars is a concept few of us can imagine, here’s another way to look at Newsom’s spending blueprint. A stack of one billion one-dollar greenbacks is a shade under 68 miles high. Multiply that times 286 and the height approaches 19,500 miles—about 38 round trips from sea level to the International Space Station, which hovers roughly 254 miles above the planet.

We needn’t talk more about the state budget—for now, at least. A better “tell” comes in four months and the so-called “May Revision” that takes into account April’s tax revenue. Besides, as the California good-government champion David Crane pointed out in an email over the past weekend, “A forecast in January 2022 of tax revenues that are significantly dependent upon the behavior of stock markets from July 2022 to June 2023 is inherently unreliable.”

That’s true. Then again, it’s hard to see what flies there are in the spending ointment given the record surplus and a usually compliant legislature in flush times.

However, there is at least one complicating factor: education.

Specifically, how much to devote to K–12 schools in the coming year—and whether California’s teachers’ unions will be on their best behavior in the next few months given both California’s present health conditions and the competition to secure government dollars.

Let’s look at the spending side first.

Two years ago, California’s K–12 system caught a break when state lawmakers allowed school districts to use their pre-pandemic enrollment and attendance figures to estimate their funding for the next two school years. But starting this fall, and with the budget put in place this summer, funding levels will be determined by updated enrollment and attendance numbers.

Given the shrinking enrollment in California’s public schools since the pandemic made its way to the Golden State (a little over 6 million students in the 2020­–21 school year vs. 6.16 million the year before—a drop of more than 160,000 students), that could leave school administrators clamoring for more resources despite fewer bodies in classrooms.

Newsom’s spending plan allocates total funding of $119 billion for K–12 education, which translates to about $20,855 per pupil when considering all accounting sources (back in 1994, it was a little over $4,200, or about $7,900 in today’s dollars).

Will that be enough for California’s educracy? Stay tuned.

It’s worth noting that Newsom took a different fiscal approach to the University of California and California State University systems.

The carrot? The governor dangling five years of annual funding increases. The catch? Universities have to close achievement gaps among underserved students, boost graduation rates, reduce attendance costs, and increase undergraduate enrollment among instate students.

Why wouldn’t Newsom attempt the same approach with the K–12 system—promise more money, but make it performance based?

My guess: he’s trying to straddle the line between loyalty to a political special interest group that’s supported his campaigns and causes and any confrontations that could put schools in the spotlight.

In that regard, forget about May and July as seminal months for California schools. In 2022, November might be the month that matters most to the future of California’s schools—that is, if several education-related initiatives qualify for the ballot (so far, only one measure has qualified for the November 2022 ballot; it seeks to overturn a 2020 California law banning flavored tobacco).

Those possible education-related initiatives:

  • One or more school-choice measures (one offers $13,000 and the other $14,000 in voucher payments for student education savings accounts, allowing parents to decide what schools are best for their children).
  • A constitutional amendment entitling public school students to a “high-quality education” (Florida, Illinois, and already have such provisions). The significance? If voter approved, the measure would enable parents and students to file lawsuits challenging rules and regulations they deem detrimental to learning (the same principle at stake in the Vergara court case).
  • Arguably the biggest game-changer of them all: billionaire venture capitalist Tim Draper’s proposal to eliminate collective bargaining between California’s state and local governments and public employees’ unions (that includes teachers’ unions) over such matters as wages and benefits.

Would Newsom like to see all of those measures fail? Yes, assuming he’s in lockstep with California’s teachers’ unions. And perhaps all proposals might come up short with voters (historically, school-choice measures have been box-office poison in California), particularly if the state and local school districts maintain a harmonious relationship in 2022.

However, “harmonious” isn’t a word to best describe California’s present school year. Academic officials complain that a spike in COVID, difficulty getting tested, and staff shortages make it difficult to keep schools open under the current conditions. Then again, teacher “sickouts” protesting those conditions test the patience of a COVID-weary electorate—especially when such unapproved, unauthorized practices are deemed “technically illegal” by the folks running the schools.

Not that such school drama likely would derail Newsom’s chances at earning a second term this fall, but a sour electorate could complicate matters for other Democratic candidates and provide a tailwind for the aforementioned ballot measures.

So much for money—and an unprecedented amount of government spending—buying love.