The great Western author Wallace Stegner wrote, "Angry as one may be at what careless people have done and still do to a noble habitat, it is hard to be pessimistic about the West. This is the native home of hope."
Stegner was talking about the natural environment, but his words also apply to the economic and political landscape in California, where he lived and taught at Stanford for many years.
The Great Recession hit harder in California than in most other places, and the state's budget and public schools have been savaged by years of steep cuts and deficits. Despite these tough times, Californians in November took a strong stand for public education with the passage of Proposition 30.
By approving Proposition 30, which temporarily increases taxes on the wealthiest citizens, voters allowed the state to avert $6 billion in immediate education cuts. These cuts would have devastated public schools and universities, which had already endured $20 billion in cuts over the previous four years. With this vote, Californians said it is time to reverse the tide of decline, and begin rebuilding the state's public education system.
That vote could help lead our nation in the right direction as Congress debates ways to avoid going over the so-called "fiscal cliff." If Congress doesn't act to avoid automatic across-the-board budget cuts, federal education and early childhood programs will be devastated. Based on information from the Congressional Budget Office, the National Education Association has calculated that across-the-board cuts would affect more than 9 million students, slash programs by close to $5 billion, and eliminate about 78,000 education jobs.
Such reckless cuts would:
Reduce financial aid for more than 2 million college students.
Slash Title I aid by $1.1 billion, cutting assistance to almost 1.8 million students who live in poverty.
Cut $142 million from technical, vocational and literacy education programs that serve 1.2 million adults.
Eliminate spots for 78,000 children in Head Start programs.
Gut special education programs serving 476,000 students by almost $1 billion.
Devastate Medicaid, which provides the health care for one-third of our nation's children.
All of these programs help children become engaged, productive members of society, and cutting them deeply and indiscriminately would put our nation's future at risk. Congress must follow California's lead by asking those who can pay a little more to do so, which will make it possible for us to invest in our future.
If this happens, it wouldn't be the first time that California has been a leading indicator of political and economic trends.
During the post-World War II boom years, no place boomed more resoundingly than the Golden State. Americans flocked here for good jobs, and California created a system of public education K-12, colleges and universities that became the envy of the nation. California truly was the land of opportunity.
In 1978, California presaged another trend with the passage of Proposition 13, which limited property taxes. Some conservative activists cite Proposition 13 as the spark for a national anti-tax movement, but it took a toll on education as California's spending per pupil plummeted from seventh in the nation to the bottom half of states. The recent budget crisis accelerated the decline in education investment.
Nevertheless, as Stegner wrote, it's hard to be pessimistic about the future. California, like the United States, still enjoys natural blessings and boundless human energy. By choosing a balanced approach to our budget challenges, Californians are leading the U.S. back to our native home of hope.