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Paying the price Tuesday for class size reduction

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POSTED May 16, 2009 2:24 a.m.
Manteca Unified – and much of California – took the bite out of the forbidden fruit and are paying for it big time.

The forbidden fruit was class-size reduction that came about when California was flush with revenues from the Silicon Valley free for all where fortunes were made overnight and taxes flowed like wine into state coffers.

Some districts such as Modesto Schools showed restraint, preferring instead to add classroom aides instead of teachers. They were skeptical about the state’s ability to keep the cash flowing and they were less than happy with the deadline imposed to hire teachers to take class sizes from student-teacher ratios that were at 32 to 1 down to 20 to 1.

The tight deadline for getting qualified teachers in place ignored the fact it takes five years plus to become a credentialed teacher in California. The short two-year time frame was not put in place for any sound education reason. It was pure political expediency so members of parties on both sides of the aisle could crow in campaigns about how they were improving California schools.

Schools were forced to seek emergency credentials for applicants in order to fill the new teaching spots in time to receive the state money. There were more than a few people who got into teaching – and were washed out after a year or so – who had no business being teachers.

The state had a surplus and instead of putting some aside for the inevitable downturns especially with the way state taxes depend on the private sector generating wealth and spending it they launched big new initiatives that committed more money in future years even when the economy slows down.

That is why it is laughable when pundits say it is a revenue problem, and not spending, noting that state receipts have dropped $17 billion. This may come as a surprise, to them, but this isn’t the first rodeo as far as recessions go. They happen. The failure of elected leaders to show restraint and prepare for bad times in good times and instead opting to placate people with more government goodies is the root of the problem we are experiencing today. Yes, there are structural issues with how the state taxes people and businesses that makes it overly subject to the ups and downs of various segments of the economy.

The sad truth is the state ramped up spending year after year as if we’d party forever.

How, you might ask, can anyone imply that spending more money on education is a horrible thing to do? That’s not the point. What is the point is how it was spent. It took huge amounts of resources to add portable classrooms and teaching staff. It would have been much more cost effective to hire more aides. You could have paired those aides with teachers in even more classes than was done with class-size reduction.

It is not ironic that the biggest hit in the aftermath of Tuesday’s election – whether the propositions pass or not – is going to be public education.

Class-size reduction was built on a financial house of cards. Perhaps a year or two in intense economic studies should be required before anyone is allowed to assume a position of authority at the state Department of Education. As for politicians who show no regard for reality or the way things work, we simply get what we deserve when we vote them into office.

No one is going to argue that the more attention students receive the better in terms of end results. There’s an asterisk, however. You can only afford to do what doesn’t kill you.

Ultimately, the worst thing that will happen after Tuesday is not the fact a lot of kids will be in classes with more students next year. The worst thing that will happen is students today will be paying for the past sins of our elected leaders- and us as well. We never tried to restrain ourselves either. We wanted more. More services. More material things. Less taxes. Less responsibility.

Politicians, as they have been known to do, simply gave us what we wanted.

And we’re about to pay the price in less services and more debt.
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