Monday, October 22, 2012

For Your Consideration: Yes on Prop 30

It will be a great day when our schools have all the money they need, and our air force has to have a bake-sale to buy a bomber.
Robert Fulghum

This post is a bit awkward for me to write. While I’m very comfortable advocating for others—the oppressed, downtrodden, marginalized and traumatized—I’m not so comfortable advocating for my own “agenda.” I live with a deep fear of being lumped those poor souls always angling and spinning for their own “bottom line.” But both the painfully low level of awareness and the pitifully shameful level of discourse during this election season leads me to speak out. I’ll be as “objective” as I can.

In the coming weeks, everyone in California will have the opportunity to vote on Proposition 30, a proposal to raise taxes exclusively to fund K-12 schools and community colleges this year and primarily for these schools over the next 7 years.

Specifically it would raise revenue two ways:
-Increase the state sales tax from 7.25% to 7.5%

AND

-Create four high-income tax brackets for taxpayers with taxable incomes exceeding $250,000, $300,000, $500,000 and $1,000,000 (these represent the top 3% of income earners). This increased tax will be in effect for 7 years.

K-12 schools and colleges in California are underfunded. The US Census Bureau lays it out for you here (35 out of 50 states). On top of this, per student spending has been cut by more than $1000 since 2008 and it will get chopped by $441 if Prop 30 does not pass. Prop 30 is intended as a slight course correction (in the right direction) of decreased revenue for CA government and education spending since the late 70s. It is a tourniquet to stop the bleeding of schools.

Instead of boring you with a post filled with contested and mind-numbing statistics (what the Presidential debates have basically become), I will just lay out what my job is like. I’m 39 years old and I’ve been teaching for 16 years. Last year I made $65,000 (with solid health, dental & vision benefits) teaching 5 classes with additional coaching duties for 5 weeks of the summer (we currently pay $1450/month for our studio apartment and $4.60/gallon for our gas). I teach Advanced Placement World History, Economics and American Government. I’m the Social Science Department Chair and the assistant boys cross country coach. In addition, I am a member of the campus SIOP team, a group of a dozen teachers who are learning and experimenting with evidence-driven learning strategies (after all “it’s not about what we teach, it’s about what the students actually learn”) with the intent of implementing them campus-wide.

My classes are filled with a variety of students (my largest class is currently 38) coming from families ranging from supportively stable to disturbingly dysfunctional. Students have changed dramatically since I started teaching in ’97, exponentially socialized by iPods, iPhones, texting, Facebook & Instagram (literally, their brains are vastly different than those of us from older generations). These technologies distract, compete and flood them with anxiety, both in the classroom and at home, diminishing relationships with parents and teachers (the two sets of adults who contribute most to the eventual “success” of young people both now and in the future).

In addition, many students bring diagnoses of autism, ADD & ADHD (in addition to other mental illnesses) into the classroom. Many students are products of abuse, addiction, neglect and divorce. They are brimming with anger and cynicism. And still more students do not have parents who speak English in the home. These intense sociological factors impede student learning and have transformed the teaching profession from a coherent & highly achievable challenge to, what seems like on most days, a chaotic & highly anxious conundrum. And, in comparison to horrifically overburdened lower-income districts like LAUSD, our job in South Orange County is relatively manageable.

On top of all this, the pressure for students to succeed academically has increased as the ability for them to actually do so has sharply cascaded. When I graduated from high school in California in the last year of George H. Bush’s administration, it was much easier to get into UCLA, Berkeley and UC Santa Barbara than it is now. And, to add insult to injury, it is now much more expensive to go to any of the UCs, Cal-States and community colleges that, for decades throughout the 20th century, were designed to deliver affordable world-class education to all California high school graduates. If Prop 30 does not pass, tuitions for these universities and colleges will increase automatically and class offerings will continue to plummet. Meanwhile, with this monster of debt peering over their shoulders, many of my students are filling out applications. And they are stressed out.

This year, even if Prop 30 passes, I’ll be receiving a 5% pay cut with furlough days that will cut the school year more than a week shorter than last year. If Prop 30 does not pass, it will be a 12% pay cut with furlough days that will end the school year in late May—with teacher layoffs and increased class sizes awaiting. Don’t get me wrong: I absolutely love my job. I’d almost do it for free. Most of my colleagues feel the same way. So, I guess you could say that CA voters have us in a Catch-22.

No doubt about it, just about every teacher on our campus is intrinsically motivated and genuinely loves students. We will all continue pouring mind, body and soul into every lesson, regardless of pay cuts and the bloating of classroom attendance. In short, we know how good we’ve got it: getting the opportunity to wake up every morning and drive to a deeply rewarding job spent with highly energetic young people (OK, sometimes their complex blend of apathy and adrenaline puts me over the top).

In fact, and this might surprise you, many of my colleagues actually agree that common sense pension reform (away from a “defined benefit” plan that puts the CA budget into a stranglehold) is a necessary next step to “getting our state’s fiscal house in order.” And, trust me, many teachers I know would love to see comprehensive reform to keep teachers truly accountable, instead of solely being judged by end-of-the-year standardized tests. Good teachers (and those mediocre ones getting better!) should be supported and encouraged while those with no game or who game the system should be removed from classrooms.

With all that said, opponents of Prop 30 who scapegoat unions and pensions with cliches like “government waste and fraud” (as the “No on Prop 30” folks have consistently done in advertisements) are participating in a tired game, lobbing fraudulent overgeneralizations that are not helpful for a much-needed good faith conversation about the dire straits of CA education. The truth be told, teachers pay 8% of their salaries into the retirement fund and the average CA teacher retires at 62 with an average annual pension of $48,000—and, remember, we do not receive social security checks.

In the remaining 2 weeks of the election season, millions of dollars will continue to flow into the No on Prop 30 campaign from out-of-state special interests with vastly deep pockets. This money trickles down from a national agenda to shrink government down to a size where it can be drown in a bathtub. This is bad news for young people, families and the hard-working teachers who sweat it out every day in already over-crowded classrooms.

Prop 30 raises taxes, incrementally & progressively, on the top 3% of income-earners, households which have benefited overwhelmingly from the Bush tax cuts of the past decade while charging an extra nickel for a $20 purchase. Our schools are now in desperation mode, with just about everything on the chopping block. I urge you to support Prop 30 this month. It is fundamental for our future.

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