By Michael Watkins, County Superintendent of Schools
On January 9th the Governor released California’s 2018-19 fiscal year budget and although schools on the surface appear to be winners, one has to dig a little deeper to unearth what the new dollars really mean for California’s 6 million students and the students of Santa Cruz County. California has the sixth largest economy in the world and the largest domestic product (GDP) of any state in the nation and yet it ranks 45th nationally in the percentage of taxable income spent on education, 41st in per-pupil funding, 45th in pupil/teacher ratios and 48th in pupil/staff ratios. K-12 school funding has not substantially increased, on an inflation-adjusted basis, for more than a decade. In fact, state funding for schools has just recently returned to levels predating the Great Recession of 2007 and whatever modest gains have been made are being eroded by rising health care and pension costs as well as the costs for transportation and utilities. It is no wonder we are experiencing a significant teacher shortage along with collective bargaining challenges.
Since 1975 (Senate Bill 160) school boards and unions have been required to meet at least once every three years to negotiate salaries, benefits, hours of employment, the school calendar and other working conditions. Nearly all California school districts now have a teachers union and most are either affiliated with the California Teachers Association or the California Federation of Teachers. The primary activity of these unions is to represent the teachers in negotiating the terms of the contract. During my long tenure in public education I have been on both sides of the bargaining table and have come to realize that it doesn’t matter which side you are on, the experience can be less than pleasant. The system, however well-meaning is ripe for conflict due to the high-stakes nature of the negotiation and the way in which California funds public education.
One possible solution, but definitely not the sole panacea, is for California to follow what 17 other states have done and adopt a statewide teacher salary schedule that guarantees a certain minimum level of pay. Currently, the minimum pay range for a school district in California can have a low of $39,000 for a beginning teacher and a high of $69,000 all things being equal. That gap needs to be closed if we are to retain the best and brightest teachers in hard to staff school districts. It could also go a long way to alleviate the entrenched acrimony that seems to go hand-in-hand with single district negotiations. While a statewide salary schedule alone cannot equalize teacher pay, it can help to close the gap between the highest paid and lowest-paid teachers in the state. A schedule can help to achieve this goal by ensuring that every district in the state provides their teachers with a salary that is at least competitive with that of other districts in the state.
Although there is no hard data to give the exact numbers of how many Santa Cruz County teachers have been lost to higher paying districts in Silicon Valley, I know that the numbers are significant. It will be difficult to counter this trend because of the complexity of single district funding formulas. In 2016 the California School Boards Association issued a report entitled “California’s Challenge: Adequately Funding Education in the 21st Century” and determined (adjusting for inflation) an additional $22 to $40 billion annually would be required to provide ALL public school students with access to a high-quality education. I am cautiously optimistic that the huge financial windfall that many of California’s corporations will receive under the new tax law will allow these companies to do the right thing and invest in our schools. Their support is needed now more than ever.