The State of the State’s Educational System

22 Jan

San Diego — Tomorrow the Spring Semester starts, and with it comes the onslaught of the issues and problems created for teachers and especially for students by the State’s budget crisis.  So this is perhaps a reasonable time to offer a somewhat jaundiced view of it all.

The underlying official California educational philosophy holds that education up to and including college/university ought to be free to all state citizens.  The concept is based on a truly benign and well intentioned perspective that holds, true enough, that it is through education and perhaps education alone that a society’s real future can be found and therefore, it is in that society’s interest to provide their citizens with a good education.

Most states agree that should include K-12 but California believes it really ought to include secondary education through undergraduate levels at least.   Unfortunately, within that desire lies a lot of places to go very much off the rails, not the least of which is in the definition de jour as to what constitutes a good education.  Whenever the propriety of a course of action – or course of study – can be determined by a political entity then the conclusion rapidly retreats from one based on practicality and even reality and becomes one based on political whims of the day.

Consequently I must openly disclaim that I oppose that idea on at least three grounds:

  1. People, including students understand that in this mercantile society you get what you pay for and when something is offered for free the price honestly tells you what it is likely worth.
  2. Education is not cheap to provide when done well and when the state is running low on money and education suffers, then the really good teachers are likely to go to the better paying schools resulting, sooner or later in the state schools being the poorer ones in terms of educational delivery by anyone’s definition of good.
  3. Since the goals are politically defined then the requirements tend to favor courses that help perpetuate the sponsoring political philosophies over any real world needs and the results are incredibly well educated people who have not a single real world skill and have no chance at employment except to re-enter the education system to perpetuate that which thy have been taught.

I cannot change those goals, they are what they are.  I can only try to reveal them and their results and do the best I can to prepare my own students for success in a real world even if it is not the world my academic colleagues wished existed.  You however, must understand that much of the current budget impasse flows directly from attempts to reach that goal and in the process, bankrupting the system.  This same sort of scenario where one group decides another group needs to carry them based on some idea of social good or justice is part and parcel of the problem.  But for now I want to concentrate on education since it is not only typical but it is the one I have to deal with daily.

A common mantra when viewing and trying to understand political theses and their results is to “follow the money.”  So let’s do that here and see where it goes.  At my school, part of one of the largest community college districts in the state, the actual average cost to the school to provide its educational services is a little north of $150.00 per credit.  But for years, the actual student fees were limited to $20.00 per credit with the rest subsidized by the state in a manner we will address in a moment.  The budget crisis has resulted in a couple of fee increases that, in Fall of 2012 will rise to $46.00 per credit.  You residents of other states can stop laughing or swearing any moment when you compare your own fees averaging nearly $100.00 per credit and often well over that amount.  Remember the state and most academics here really want it to be free.

The immediate problem is that even this new fee hike leaves a shortfall of about $100.00 per credit.  We have about 20,000 students for whom a full load is 12 credits.  To be conservative lets say that the average student load is only 8 credits.  That means the district and state is face with a real deficit of  $16,000,000 each semester.  That is not chump change and all of it must be made up from the state coffers.  So where does it come from?  States do not do anything to earn money, they get it by taking it from someone else… you.

Well most education money comes from property taxes.  The state also promised the taxpayers that if they allowed a lottery the money would be devoted to education to supplement property taxes… unless there was an emergency.  So, dutifully, every year at the opening of the state assembly, one of the very first orders of business by the state legislature is to declare an emergency that allows them to convert the lottery revenues into the general fund.  So with that account now raped, that just leaves the property taxes.

And who pays property taxes?  Well there is a portion that comes from business properties owned by large corporations.  But business regulation has become so restrictive, since Californians see corporations as per se evil, that they are, when possible, leaving the state.  Last year roughly 700 businesses left California for states like Texas and Florida or even Idaho to avoid the onerous restrictions and escalating taxes.  So the property taxes for them went away but with them went something perhaps even more important.

The major source of property taxes comes from homeowners.  And who are homeowners?  Well most of them are employees of corporations or businesses that are stable enough and have the income to get a mortgage.  Or they used to be…

Of course when the companies leave employees either go with them or remain and try to find some new employment somewhere, which today, is nearly always a lost cause because the State is true to its values, and make this a most business-hostile environment.  Those less productive individuals the state sees as vulnerable and to be supported and deserving of help on some level are certain to tug at the heart strings of most.  But by and large they contribute little or nothing to society and certainly do not create a demographic likely to hire people that can buy homes and pay taxes based on their employment.

Of course the CRA (Community Redevelopment Act) passed under Carter mandated that home ownership was a right and so forced lending institutions into accepting mortgage applications whether or not the lender believed them capable of repaying.  So in order to get out from under those toxic loans that were sure to fail they bundled and sold many of them to those fictional private lending entities that are really an arm of the government, Fannie and Freddie.  And now a huge proportion of those unqualified loans have done as predicted even in a stable economy, and failed, leaving the government holding the bag as house after house sits empty (meaning NO tax revenue) or under water and re-assessed for lower values meaning less tax revenue.

And into that revenue void comes a world where inflation, due to the increasing fiat money supply, is making every dollar worth less, able to buy less, and along with it, creating a perfect storm for education: dwindling tax revenues and increasing costs.

Our re-treaded governor is now floating a plan to increase tax revenues by increasing marginal rates… on whom?  Businesses and people making as pre-tax income over a magic number that changes with the telling but lies somewhere between $200,000 and $1 million.  And who does that hit the hardest?  The answer is small and medium companies that are sole proprietorships and LLCs.  I had years as a photographer/industrial training videographer where my pre-tax income approached that amount but my business costs brought my actual take home down, often, to well under $100,000.00

To make matters worse the governor wants to increase the marginal tax rate.  Even though my gross tax rate might have been, let’s say, somewhere near 25-30 percent, once I had taken my deductions, my actual tax rate figured on adjusted income as compared to my gross made my tax rate closer to 12-13 percent of my gross.  The governor wants to increase those rates 2-3% according to his State of the Union address.  But going from 12% to 14% is, in actuality, over a 20% increase in my taxes.  That adds up to a big hit.

I don’t want to get off topic and into issues of what is fair or not here, although I am quite willing to debate the issue in another post.  All I am saying here is that the reality of what the governor is proposing is quite likely going to create a replay of what happened already in Maryland.  There, the state did a study that suggested if they do the same as is being proposed here, the tax revenues would increase by a rather huge amount.  But the year after the new law went into effect and the smoke cleared after tax time, it was revealed that the tax base itself dropped significantly and the actual revenues were down more from the previous base than the projections had shown an increase.

Why?  Because the targeted taxpayers simply left for less hostile territory and took their businesses and often their employees with them.

If that same result were to happen here the results for education would be catastrophic.  At my school we are already operating at a vastly reduced level after cutting classes every semester over a two-year period.  We have eliminated summer sessions and so many classes the few remaining are cutting seriously into our ability to offer our program towards either a degree or certificate.

Yes, tax revenues need to increase but they need to increase through growth in productivity not in growth of tax rates.  Yes schools need to get real with their student fees at least to the extent other states do.  And academia needs to do some housekeeping of its own.

If the avowed reason for education, that is to prepare students to enter the workforce and increase the tax base, is true then state schools need to re-appraise what classes are designed to do that and concentrate their efforts (and money) there and not in feel good “soft” topics that lead nowhere in terms of employment or in developing entrepreneurship.

And they need to get realistic about their faculty vis-à-vis who is providing quality education meeting those goals and who is not.

The rejoinder is that education should be about more than getting a job and therefore many of those feel good classes are important.  I would say that many soft subjects do indeed help prepare students for the real world but many do not and some that could are not taught from that perspective.  Learning to think critically, a very important skill, is not taught by historical revisionism or teaching students how to sing with the existing choir of the instructor and demeaning other perspectives.  I have no trouble with soft classes as electives, but when they become requirements then I think they need to be re-evaluated.

The solution to the budget crisis vis-à-vis the educational success in California schools has now gone way past the point of where it could be done easily and with minimal pain.  If – and I think it is obviously a HUGE IF – the politicians and the people truly believe that education is important even if only to help improve the tax base, then we are all going to have to deal with some pain.

The government needs to get serious about trimming waste and prioritizing its allocation of funds.  Surely education ought to be at the top or very near the top instead of being a poor stepchild to such things as prison guards and Delta Smelt. The governor promised to cut back on the size of government to demonstrate his commitment to dealing with that side of the problem.  The result, according to the State’s own figures, State Employees earning over $100,000 have been cut by 8-tenths of one percent.  Wow…

In addition to the government, the people need to understand that in the short term they too are going to have to give a little.  Perhaps the taxes may need a mild increase but the government needs to make sure that any taxes thus raised are absolutely and irrevocably dedicated to education, the law contains a sunset clause, and, while they are at it, give the lottery money back to education as well and pass laws to draw major companies that hire lots of people back into the state.  The political parties are worse than useless here, the people will have to do something I am normally opposed to and go around them to force the issues against both sides of the aisle.

And the schools have a part to play as well.  When sharpening the axe for cuts they need to look at priorities, a sort of ‘triage’ based on results, rather than trying to spread cuts evenly in the interests of “fairness.”  They need to prioritize costs toward classes and programs designed to prepare students to go out and earn a living and become productive in society and, until things turn around, be willing to axe some of the soft, feel good, politically correct programs that do not well serve those goals.  And they need to look seriously at quantitatively evaluating faculty along the same rules that courses are evaluated.

None of that is easy or painless.  But no less than a continuation of the terminal slide of the California education system is what is at stake.  It is, in my opinion, for each party to the problem and solution, the government, the citizenry, and academia itself to get real about solutions.

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Posted by on January 22, 2012 in Uncategorized


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