A broken red heart with a band-aid taped on it peeked out of Westlake Middle School student Jabari Valentine’s pocket.
He had exactly two minutes to convince Gov. Arnold Schwarzenneger to stop his proposed $4.8 billion cut from state education funds over the next 18 months.
“Governor, you are breaking our hearts,” Jabari said to applause from the 17 superintendents, parents and community activists who turned up at Westlake Middle School in Oakland last week to protest the governor’s proposal to slash K-12 funding from his proposed state budget cuts.
Westlake, part of the Oakland Unified School District, stands to lose up to $436,000 if the proposed budget cuts become a reality.
Hundreds of students drew Valentine’s Day cards as a plea to the governor to redirect the cuts to other parts of the state budget or come up with additional revenue sources.
School districts all over California are bracing themselves for potential layoffs, class size reductions and loss of programs as they plan their budget for the 2007-08 school year.
At a recent Berkeley Board of Education meeting, School Board President John Selawsky said it was time to hop on the bus and go to Sacramento.
The Berkeley public schools could lose up to $2.5 million if the proposed cuts go through. Former Berkeley Unified Superintendent Michele Lawrence, who retired on Feb. 2, warned that the district would have to issue layoff notices to six or seven counselors and pre-school staff.
“We need courageous leadership to provide progressive revenues along with responsible cuts,” Alameda County Superintendent Sheila Jordan told the Planet. “We are being forced into a financial crisis and we cannot let that happen.”
The proposed K-12 funding would slash $400 million from the state education funds this year and take away $4.4 billion in the next fiscal year, which means $700 less for each of the approximately 6.3 million public school students in the state.
“Everybody tells me how important education is,” Jabari said in his speech. “My mom tells me ... Teachers stress the importance everyday, I hear athletes on TV saying education is the key to a great future, but how can I believe what they say when the governor of this great state downplays the importance of education by proposing to cut the budget. This sends a message to me and every other child that maybe education is not that important.”
Jabari told the Planet that he has benefited from his school’s after-school program which helped him learn Spanish, computers, creative arts and theater.
“I am sad to say that because of Governor Schwarzenneger’s proposed budget cuts, other students may not get to experience the same opportunities that I have,” he told the crowd. “I feel like the governor is trying to rob me of my future. He declared 2008 the ‘Year of Education.’ I guess he’s sending the message it’s okay to lie too.”
Education Week recently gave California a D+ for public school funding efforts.
According to Jordan, the state—which currently spends $2,000 less per student than the national average and ranks 46th nationally in school funding—is behind less prosperous states such as Louisiana and Mississippi.
Berkeley’s new Superintendent of Schools Bill Huyett told the Planet the district would be sending a contingent to Sacramento on Feb. 27.
“In Berkeley, everything on the unrestricted general fund is on the table right now for potential cuts,” he said. “The only thing that will change that is if the governor introduces legislature to stop the cuts and that has hardly ever happened.”
The cuts could result in a $6.1 million loss for the San Lorenzo Unified School District.
“Now that we have funds in place, this proposal will devastate everything,” said Dennis Byas, superintendent of the San Lorenzo Unified School District. “The impact will be felt most in urban classrooms which need additional support ... A straight cut across the board will not work. It will bankrupt school districts all across the state and completely stall student achievement.”
Betty Olson Jones, president of the Oakland Education Association, spoke about ways to address the challenge ahead.
“We have to change the conversation,” she said. “We have to start where the needs are most urgent: in schools labeled as ‘failing’ under No Child Left Behind rules, and in the classrooms of new teachers.”
Jones said that creating public awareness to reverse fiscal and tax policies was important.
“California is the fifth largest economy in the world ... Corporate wealth has to be tapped on a regularized, sustained basis—not as ‘charity’ with strings attached.”
According to the Oakland Education Association, Oakland’s metropolitan economy is ranked in the top 20 nationally. Jones said that although the port takes in over $33 billion annually, it is not required to pay a penny for public education.
Fremont Unified School District, which consists of 31,700 K-12 students, could lose funding for intervention programs if the proposed cuts take place.
“It will affect the lower socio-economic kids the most,” said Doug Gephart, superintendent of Fremont Unified. “Fremont is the lowest revenue district in all of Alameda County. Any cuts will simply gut education for our kids.”