It’s teachers vs. day care, as the children pay

A battle over earmarked state money has pitted teachers against advocates for day care and preschoolers, like these little ones in a Sacramento Head Start.
A battle over earmarked state money has pitted teachers against advocates for day care and preschoolers, like these little ones in a Sacramento Head Start. Sacramento Bee file

The Rube Goldberg contraption that is California’s school spending mandate has hijacked the budget, just as we all knew it would.

And the fallout is ugly. For months, legislative analysts warned that this year’s revenue windfall might be consumed by consequences of Proposition 98, the constitutional amendment that sends public schools to the front of the line for state money.

Now, sure enough, the complex law and its various interpretations have set up an unfortunate scramble between child care advocates and teachers.

The child care supporters argue that early childhood education was eligible for Proposition 98 money until the recession; they’re asking to re-include it, the better to subsidize day care for low-income preschoolers.

Senate and Assembly plans vary, but at most, what’s sought is a fraction of a percentage point of the Proposition 98 stream, which, at last count, was surging toward $70 billion.

Unfortunately, the powerful California Teachers Association, still smarting from K-14 education cuts during the recession, doesn’t want to share its bonanza, not even with poor little preschool kids.

The teachers’ stance is understandable, if defensive. Schools took a real hit in 2011 when Gov. Jerry Brown and state lawmakers restructured the budget to get past the economic slump.

Now it’s payback time, and they want full compensation. Plus, they say, child care isn’t necessarily education and should never have been allowable under Proposition 98.

But temporary taxes passed in 2012 have since shored up school finances. And the CTA is being – how to put this? – greedy.

State budget cuts hit a lot of worthy programs. Subsidized day care was scaled way back. That, in turn, made a full-time paycheck impossible for a lot of parents. Now the economy is rebounding. Don’t we want to get those parents working?

Moreover, good child care and early childhood education are crucial to school achievement. As Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, puts it, kids don’t get do-overs – a child whose development is neglected at age 3 plays catch-up forever.

These programs’ eligibility for Proposition 98 is settled case law. That money pays for all sorts of things, from cafeteria workers to groundskeepers, that aren’t pure education.

Lawmakers should stand up to the CTA, union clout notwithstanding. The state has huge needs, and between Proposition 98 and the governor’s new rainy-day set-asides, the general fund can’t pay for them all.

Even teachers’ allies in organized labor wince at the CTA’s refusal to see reason. Other unions are trying to get collective bargaining rights for child care workers, whose low pay has long been a scandal; for those potential new members, inclusion in Proposition 98 would be a boon.

It’s too bad. The real villain is the ballot-box budgeting apparatus that got us into this jackpot. But until that’s fixed, humans need to step up.

CTA claims its members don’t want any child to suffer. Maybe they should back down and put their money where their mouths are, just this once.