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Not Yet Ready to Give Up on Public Schools

Despite pronounced disaffection with the academic performance of students, 53.9 percent of voters in California approved Proposition 30, a ballot measure that is expected to raise an additional $6 billion a year in taxes to protect public schools and colleges. To achieve this goal, the sales tax will rise to 7.5 percent - a quarter of a percentage point - until 2016, while individuals making more than $250,000 annually will see their income-tax-rate increase by one to three percentage points until 2018. The money will go into the general fund, with the lion's share earmarked for schools.

Although I've lived in California since 1962, I still don't fully understand the mindset of voters. When I arrived from New York, the state's public schools were considered arguably the best in the nation. I'm talking not only about K-12 but also about higher education. But over the decades, K-12 schools went from nearly first to almost worst. (Higher education fared far better, but I'll confine my remarks to K-12.) I saw first-hand the deterioration in the years that I taught in the same high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District. It was rare that I wasn't asked at social gatherings why things had gotten so bad. In fact, I still can't drive by the high school where I taught without asking myself the same question.

Nevertheless, when given the opportunity to show their frustration and anger in the most draconian way possible, voters were willing to tax themselves more to support public education. (In contrast, voters in Arizona turned thumbs down on Proposition 204, which would have made permanent a one-cent-per-dollar sales tax increase scheduled to expire next year. They did so even though per-student spending has plummeted nearly 22 percent since 2008, the steepest decline for any state.) The best explanation I can provide is that public schools still are considered by most Californians to be a social good. "Public education is far from perfect, with too many instances of administrative sloth, union shenanigans, petty politics and resistance to change" ("Don't demonize teachers because of pension system's faults," Los Angeles Times, Oct. 21). Yet most people still believe that public education is a "noble cause." Perhaps it's because they remember particular teachers who left an indelible imprint on them at a time when they were most in need. Or maybe it's because they realize that California's schools are underfunded compared with schools in other states.

Whatever the reason, public schools have been given another chance to prove they are worthy. I hope they can regain the reputation they once had. But I want to emphasize that teachers today face challenges I never encountered during my 28-year career. The number of students who are poor or who don't speak English is unprecedented, not only in California but in other states as well. If taxpayers knew how hard teachers are working to produce the results everyone wants, perhaps the hostility would abate. There's too much on the line to let emotions cloud reason.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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