To paraphrase Ronald Reagan in his presidential debate against Jimmy Carter, "Here we go again." We're back to the races with school bonds.
In 1998, Californians passed Proposition 1A, a $9.2 billion statewide bond issue to construct new schools and to repair dilapidated facilities. That considerable sum is long gone.
Now, tax-weary Californians are being asked to approve Proposition 47, a $13.05 statewide general bond obligation to continue upgrading existing K-12 classrooms and to construct 46,000 new classrooms. Also in November, 90 California communities will vote on $10 billion in local school bonds. A little further down the road, in March 2004 another $12 billion in bonds—mostly allocated to schools—will reappear on the statewide ballot. All this comes on top of November 2001 and March 2002 bond issues wherein voters approved $4.7 billion for local school bonds.
Tallied up, since 1998, $50 billion in school bonds have been either approved or are on the ballot.
That's billion with a "B."
And Californians can bet their bottom dollar that they will be asked to pony up again in 2006 and 2008. No sum will ever be enough.
As usual, voters hear that we need more schools, more classrooms, more teachers, and generally more of everything. We must spend, spend, spend "for our children."
But since it is increasingly clear that California cannot keep up with the demand for schools or find the necessary teachers, the logical question is why does California have to go so deeply into the well so often?
Why, for example, will California need at least 16 new classrooms, seven days a week for the next five years?
Why are some school districts discussing the possibility of double sessions or Saturday classes?
Why are the hallways in many Los Angeles Unified School District schools so crowded that administrators have lengthened the time between classes so that students will have enough time to get to their next session?
Answer: the major reason California can't build schools fast enough is the continued arrival to California of legal and illegal immigrants. The children of these immigrants add to California's already overburdened schools.
According to the Demographic Department of the California Department of Education, the number of English Learners (ELs) in the state has increased every year over the last decade. In 2002, of California's 6.2 million K-12 students, 1.6 million are ELs. In 1992, total ELs were 1.2 million of a total enrollment of 5.2 million. ELs as a percentage of total enrollment increased from 22% in 1993 to 26% in 2002.
The $8 billion cost to educate ELs represents a very significant chunk of the $24 billion California state deficit.
Those statistics are dramatic enough. But if you crunch the numbers in different ways, then they become staggering.
In February 2002, the Public Policy Institute of California (www.ppic.org) issued its report, "The Linguistic Landscape of California Schools." [PDF]
The PPIC discovered that, over the last two decades, the percentage increase ELs in 11 different California geographic areas has skyrocketed: in Los Angeles, 231%; in San Francisco, 246%; in the Inland Empire, 656%; in the San Joaquin Valley, 516%; in San Diego, 334%; in Sacramento, 596%; in the Central Coast, 327%; in the Sacramento Valley, 533%; in the North Coast, 456%; in the Foothills, 307%; and in Mountain Area, 543%.
When you recover from those statistics, try these on for size. As a proportion of the current year's total new school enrollment, (percentage increase) ELs are: in Los Angeles, 38%; San Francisco, 23%; the Inland Empire, 133%; the San Joaquin Valley, 75%; San Diego, 57%; Sacramento, 69%; the Central Coast, 49%; the Sacramento Valley, 42%; the North Coast, 25%; the Foothills, 50%; and the Mountain Area, 7%.
One of Proposition 47's selling points is that "our children" deserve the best educational environment the state can provide. But are these really "our children" or are they children who have come to America to, among other reasons, take advantage of free public education?
And yes, I realize that some of the ELs are U.S.-born children of immigrants. But that technicality is another story in the U.S.'s flawed immigration policy.
Proposition 47 represents the continued failure of state and federal officials to look for long-term solutions to critical problems. Schools bonds—as painful as they are to state and local taxpayers—are the easy way out.
To solve California's school crisis, politicians would have to go where they dare not—to a long, harsh look at our immigration policies.
But since realistic laws are not on the horizon, citizens concerned about the soaring cost of education would do well to a send a loud and clear message that enough is enough.
You don't have the opportunity to vote directly on federal immigration laws; you'll have to express yourself indirectly.
Vote "No" on Proposition 47.
Joe Guzzardi [email him], an instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.