School Cutbacks Will Do More Damage Than Good

By Michael Watkins

Education in California is in a crisis. Actually, this state’s education system has been in crisis for a long time, but Gov. Jerry Brown has now outlined a potential series of cuts that could put a capstone on years of dwindling resources for the education of our children.

At the Santa Cruz County Office of Education, we’re mindful that our office and all the school districts in the county are hardly being singled out in the worsening state budget picture. We also understand that other state services are also threatened by serious cuts.

But we also know that the kind of education budget cuts threatened for 2012 will do more damage than good. Educational research is clear: investing in children and education actually cuts government costs in the long run. An educated population requires far fewer resources for social services in the future. In other words, you pay a little now or you pay more in the long run.

Certainly part of Brown’s strategy in announcing potential cut-backs is to put voters on notice that the state needs more revenue. Nevertheless, we must take seriously his warning that if voters don’t approve a $6.9 billion tax increase plan on the November ballot, schools will face some $4.8 billion in further cuts, including a shortening of the school year by three weeks. But other programs are on the chopping block as well — elimination of transitional kindergarten, cuts in childcare and further cuts to social services.

All of these cuts would hurt children, especially those from low-income families. And these are precisely the children that stand to benefit from investment now. These are the children that — without these programs — will be a further drain on state resources in years to come.

The problem for local educators — and, ultimately, for our children — is more than just the cuts themselves. The funding system for state education is in chaos. Formulas for education funding are already beyond complex — and Brown’s proposal is only going to make things worse.

Education offices around the state are already teetering on the financial brink, and now they’re being asked to plan budgets based on whether a ballot initiative nine months from now will be successful. And, even if it passes, Brown’s ballot measure may or may not bring in the $6.9 billion that’s promised.

In my election campaign for this office, I promised to bring fiscal soundness to the Santa Cruz County Office of Education. In that role, we assist local school districts by providing programs and services that are efficiently leveraged at a countywide level. That way, we can provide a bigger education bang for the buck. In fact, thanks to cooperation from the many districts around the county, local schools are in better financial shape than many around the state.

In Santa Cruz County, we’re doing our best to provide children with a better education. But in this atmosphere of statewide uncertainty, planning for our children’s future is proving difficult. It’s time for the governor and our legislators to help us in that effort.

Michael Watkins is the Santa Cruz County Superintendent of Schools.