How to educate voters?
Both sides in an escalating battle over school funding in California are searching for ways to frame the debate in their favor. Does Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposed budget cut education because it would withhold $2 billion that schools would otherwise have coming, or does it increase education funding because schools would get more money next year than this?
The semantic and numerical arguments are fierce, and how one ultimately calculates the governor's proposal depends on factoring in a property tax shift away from schools, a proposal to require local districts to pick up teacher pension payments now made by the state and other matters. Depending on how it's sliced, some folks say it's as much as a 7 percent increase for schools. Others say that after making all the necessary adjustments, it's only about a 1 percent increase.
Moorpark Assemblywoman Audra Strickland did her part for the governor's cause this week when she joined with GOP Assembly colleagues to assert that Schwarzenegger has proposed "to spend more money on education than ever before in our state’s history."
No one disputes that, but the issue then leads to more complicated questions such as "is it enough?" and "is it what the governor has promised in the past?"
The Education Coalition, made up of the PTA and associations of teachers, administrators and school board members, seems to have found a way to make the issue less confusing.
Former Education Secretary John Mockler put it like this last week: "To balance the budget last year, the governor borrowed $15 billion from Wall Street, all of which will be paid back. He borrowed $3 billion from cities and counties, all of which will be paid back. He borrowed $2 billion from transportation, all of which will be paid back. He borrowed $2 billion from education, which he now proposes to never pay back."
In radio ads released today, the Education Coalition advances that theme. The ads feature a man making a telephone call to the governor's office and then talking with the receptionist who answers the phone:
MAN: Yeah, well, um...didn't he borrow two billion dollars from the education budget last year?
OPERATOR: Mmm hmmm.
MAN: Well...now Governor Schwarzenegger has no intention of putting that money back.
MAN: Ahh, we need that money for our kids. You know...to reduce class sizes. Purchase text books. And not cut art and music...
Forget whether the proposed budget ought to be called a cut or a slight increase, the critics seem want to frame the debate more simply: The governor borrowed money from schools and now he says he's not going to pay them back.
It's a good strategy. Practically no one understands the details of education finance. Everyone understands the concept of having to pay off a debt.