Money is what is wrong with public education.
And it isn’t necessarily the perceived lack of it.
Back in 1968, I was told to go to the nurse’s office by my teacher Miss Fiack. I was 12 and had no idea what was going on. All the nurse and I ended up doing for the better part of an hour was talking. Before I was dismissed, the nurse informed me I would be starting a new class on Monday. It was called speech therapy.
I couldn’t wait to get home to tell mom. Instead of mom being excited she was furious. As a parent, she had not been told I would be tested let alone placed in what today would be called a special-needs class, both of which she believed required her consent.
But what really ticked her off was the fact she knew I didn’t need speech therapy. That’s because she had spent three years taking an older brother of mine back and forth to Sacramento State on a weekly basis for speech therapy with a professor who was regarded as one of the best on the West Coast. Not only did my parents pay good money for Ronnie’s sessions but out of concern I too might have a speech impediment they had me tested by the professor. His conclusion: I talked too fast and not to worry. Some people just talk faster because of how they think. He stressed as long as I could make all the vowel and consonant sounds – which Ronnie couldn’t when he started speech therapy – there was no problem.
After talking with my teacher, mom discovered that Miss Fiack had never referred me to be tested. Miss Fiack didn’t think there was a problem. What had happened was the district was looking for students to place into speech therapy classes. She told my mom she objected to my being tested because it seemed to be more about money than any genuine concern.
Mom had a face-to-face with the Western Placer Unified School District superintendent. He basically conceded the district got more money for students who needed additional services. Mom said she told him something to the effect of “over my dead body.” There was going to be no speech therapy for me.
Two years later, I was one of three eighth grade graduation speakers. Then four years after that I had one of two leads in the senior play.
It wasn’t until eight years after my “testing” that I was able to understand the real danger in what the district was doing.
I was 20 and had been elected a year earlier to the school board. I had gone door-to-door and talked to a lot of people who apparently had no problem understanding me when I talked.
Proposition 13 had just passed. The superintendent had asked the board to drop two programs – summer school and behind-the-wheel drivers’ education – due to budget cutbacks imposed by Gov. Jerry Brown who was responding to the voters’ mandate during his first tour in Sacramento.
I objected. Not because I had a desire to put the district in financial peril or was ignoring reality. Instead, after researching it I found that the state had been reimbursing school districts 125 percent of the actual cost of certain programs as an incentive to get them to offer them. Such was the case with summer school, drivers’ ed, and other offerings such as speech therapy.
The superintendent had misled the board, saying Brown was cutting back the funding and as such the district couldn’t afford to offer them. What Brown actually did was reduce state funding from 125 percent of the actual cost to 100 percent of the actual cost.
That was just half of the equation. Brown, well aware that districts added programs such as summer school “to make money” to use elsewhere, mandated that districts receiving state funding could not drop any existing programs already funded by the state. That meant Western Placer had to keep an adult special education program they had started a year earlier. The board had split 3-2, with myself as one of the dissenters when voting to add the special ed offering. Sierra College, just 15 miles away, offered a much bigger and diverse program. I was in the minority arguing that we had too many pressing needs to address in kindergarten through 12th grade to expand beyond that.
The real impetus from the district superintendent’s standpoint was the 25-percent bonus money they could skim off to go toward other things.
This was done not to pad administrative salaries and staff. Western Placer’s district office staff at the time consisted of the superintendent, a business manager/secretary to the superintendent, a payroll clerk, and a part-time clerk.
Western Placer was one of California’s high-tax and low-wealth districts. That meant it had maxed its local property taxes to support education but was extremely limited it what it could generate due to low assessed valuation. The Serrano-Priest decision handed down by the courts was supposed to change that but before it could be implemented the tsunami hit with passage of Proposition 13.
I voted for Proposition 13 and I’d do it again. The problem was Sacramento never really got around to doing what Brown and other state leaders shell-shocked by voter anger said had to be done to make sure education could thrive after Proposition 13 passed and that was to reform how education was funded.
Nearly 40 years later the biggest problem with education funds are the strings attached to them by Sacramento.
And while districts may no longer try to “test” students for programs that the state would give them 125 percent of the cost for offering, there are still plenty of Byzantine twists for districts to make financially to stay afloat.
This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 249-3519.