Recently, California’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office announced that the state is past its financial crisis and will have a $5.6 billion surplus by June 2015. That number is expected to increase to $8.3 billion by the 2016-17 budget year.
That is positive news and something we can all be thankful for. But we should not forget that this situation only exists because the budget was balanced on the backs of the neediest members of our society, through savage cuts in social services and public education, over many years.
While exercising due caution about economic uncertainties, as recently urged by Gov. Jerry Brown, we must be fair and honest about what cuts have done to our most vulnerable citizens and immediately restore funding in critical areas before we create a lost generation of Californians who are shut out of economic security and educational opportunity because we failed to act.
For children currently in school, restoring funding in five years is meaningless. For returning veterans, funding community colleges in the future does not help them now. For families struggling with food insecurity, a meal on the table today is what counts. If we wait years before addressing these vital points of social need – and responsibility – while we have the money to do so, we are failing to lead the Golden State toward a future of economic and social prosperity.
We are not talking about new funding but rather bringing levels back to what they were before the economic crisis. For example, the state still has $6.2 billion in payment deferrals to schools and community colleges outstanding. This is money owed to our educational system that was pushed off to the future. We now have the ability to honor that obligation and should begin to repay that debt because California continues to invest less in K-12 education than other states, and our higher education system needs a lot of attention.
According to a report released in October by the California Budget Project, California currently ranks 51st nationally (with the inclusion of Washington, D.C.) in students per teacher, and student enrollment rates in community colleges have dropped to a 20-year low in the wake of unprecedented cuts in state funding. Between 2007-08 and 2011-12, the community college system sustained $1.5 billion in budget cuts. State support for the UC and CSU remains significantly below 2007-08 levels, and reductions in Cal Grants awards for in-state students from lower-income families remain in place – a barrier for many fighting for the middle-class advantages an advanced degree can bring. It’s now reality that our kindergartens are bursting with more than 30 kids in a room, while those lucky enough to afford college drop out because enrollment is so impacted that they can’t get into classes.
And it’s not just our children who are at risk. Cuts to Supplemental Security Income/State Supplementary Payment grants that help 1.3 million low-income seniors and people with disabilities have not yet been restored, either. Total funding for child care and preschool has been cut by nearly 40 percent since 2007-08, a blow to working parents. Even with recent improvements in the 2013-14 budget, 110,000 fewer child care and state preschool slots are being funded compared with 2007-2008 – a decline of nearly one-quarter.
These are a few core areas where we can and should do better immediately, where delaying funding is causing harm to our collective future. For too long we have bent the stick in the direction of austerity and, in the name of “fiscal responsibility,” eroded programs and institutions supporting social responsibility. If we delay much longer, the damage these cuts have caused will be beyond repair for many. We can’t afford to wait.
Joshua Pechthalt is the president of the California Federation of Teachers (www.cft.org).