Education Up Front

 

February 24, 2004

March 9, 2004


We need to invest in productive learning environments

Notwithstanding the current political bevy of presidential candidates seeking the Democratic Party's nomination, next week's California primary election centers on the state's massive financial woes.

Proposition 57, a $15 billion bond measure that would help retire the state's existing budgetary obligations, leads the pack, followed closely by Proposition 58 that requires, among other things and in very simplistic terms, future state budgets to be balanced each year without borrowing to pay off deficits.

Both measures evoke varying responses from politicians, other opinion leaders and in voter polls. With only days before voters go to the polls, the fate of these two proposals is anybody's guess.

Also on the ballot and far from certain is Proposition 55, a $12.3 billion state school construction bond measure that would renovate and build clean and safe classrooms in communities and neighborhoods where such facilities are most needed.

All three measures have financial impacts; however different they may be. Both Propositions 57 and 58 attempt to clean up and reform the state's budget situation. And, both are linked together. Proposition 58's provisions only go into effect if 57 is approved. On the other hand, Proposition 55 is an opportunity for Californians to continue to invest in improved student achievement.

It is important to note, however, that Proposition 57 does impact public education to some degree. Without additional funds to attack the state budget gap, the already massive cuts in public school funding will pale in comparison to what will have be done without the $15 billion in bond revenues to close the gap.

Californians have already invested in the notion that our state needs to do a better job in educating every young person to become successful, informed and productive adults. Voters passed Proposition 98 several years ago to require that public education receives over 40 percent of the state's general fund budget. In addition, we have spent millions to develop rigorous content and performance standards for our schools and a high-stakes standardized testing program to assess academic performance. We've said the stakes are too high not to invest in the success of the next generation and we look at our higher standards and improving test scores to tell us how our public schools are doing.

Proposition 98 and the monies we have invested in standards, for the most part, cover what goes on inside classrooms, not for "bricks and mortar" to renovate and build new ones. It comes as a surprise to no one that unsafe, unhealthy and crowded classrooms do not contribute to effective teaching and learning. In fact, quite the contrary is true. That is why Proposition 55 is an extension of our deep commitment to provide California's school children and teachers with the physical resources needed to achieve the rigorous educational standards now in effect.

The proposition also is, in reality, an extension to what voters authorized in November 2002 when they approved Proposition 47. That measure provided $13 billion for school facilities, including $11.4 billion for K-12 schools and $1.65 billion for higher education capital projects. As the next step to deal with public education's capital needs, Proposition 55 would provide an additional $10 billion for K-12 and $2.3 billion for higher education.

The needs are massive. California, the so-called "Golden State," has the third most over-crowded schools in the nation. Many youngsters attend classes with 40 or more students. We need to build more than 22,000 classrooms to relieve overcrowding and deal with increasing student enrollments.

Recent surveys report that as many as 1 million children attend schools that have unhealthy bathrooms desperately in need of repair. Three out of four classrooms in California's public schools are more than 25 years old. We need resources to fix rundown classrooms, repair leaky roofs, create science labs and new classrooms so that our students are in a safe and clean environment where they can learn.

Proposition 55 does not replace the need for local school bond issues, but it does help local school districts leverage their bond funds to renovate and build needed classrooms by providing matching funds to help communities with their local school repair and construction projects.

In San Diego County, Proposition 55 would provide a little more than $845 million in matching funds to construct new classrooms and other learning facilities and $346 million to renovate older structures throughout the county's school districts.

The problems are by no means confined to K-12 schools. The measure includes $920 million to repair and build community college facilities and $1.38 billion divided equally between the University of California and California State University to address critical facilities problems.

Accountability has for the most part been linked to assessing academic results, but it extends here to being sure the funds are spent only on school repair and construction. Independent audits each year, strict cost controls, actual site performance audits and other stringent requirements are in place to guard against waste and mismanagement and provide ongoing oversight of all school projects.

It may not be the cure-all, but Proposition 55 comes as close as any affordable solution. The measure enjoys strong bipartisan support in the state Legislature as well as the governor's office. The California Taxpayers' Association regards it as a "fiscally responsible way to finance school repair and construction." And, both the state's business and labor communities understand the need and support the measure.

These are hard times for California but we cannot ignore the education of our next generation. We need to build classrooms, science labs and other facilities to house our students in environments that are conducive to good teaching and learning. Not to do so will doom our most crowded and rundown schools to fail to teach and prepare their young people to be productive adults and the leaders of tomorrow.

We cannot afford that scenario. You think $12.3 billion to build and renovate schools is a scary number? It is nothing compared to the costs of failing to do everything we can to promote effective teaching and learning at every school to maximize every student's potential.


Hovenic, Ed.D., is president and chief executive officer of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce Foundation and executive director of the Foundation's Business Roundtable for Education. E-mail her at ginger.hovenic@sddt.com.


 

February 24, 2004

March 9, 2004