It’s one thing for California high school students to read or hear a lecture about how government works. It is quite another for them to experience this in person.
Shortly after 8 AM on May 4, a group of 45 students in Michael Barglow’s history class at Skyline High clambered onto a charter bus headed for the state capitol. Michael is my brother, and since I also work with high school students, helping them prepare for college, I’m quite interested in educational issues. So I boarded the bus as well.
Michael’s students had been preparing during the past week to meet with East Bay political representatives: Assemblypersons Sandre Swanson, Nancy Skinner, and Senator Loni Hancock.
The students, accompanied by several adults and student volunteers from UC Berkeley, arrived at the Capitol Building in downtown Sacramento, ready to present some challenging questions to their representatives.
First on the agenda was a discussion with Sandre Swanson. The students packed into his office and were greeted first by Swanson’s aide and then by the assemblyman himself.
Swanson said he strongly favors more funding for public education, and that he opposes the rule that requires a 2/3 vote of the state legislature to pass a budget or to raise property taxes. In fact, Swanson was one of three Democrats whose committee chairmanships were taken away from them by party leadership following their votes against state spending caps and cutbacks.
One student asked Assemblyman Swanson about a possible relationship between the state’s financial crisis and federal priorities, including the expenditure of nearly a trillion dollars on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Swanson acknowledged that the state is dependent on funding from the federal government but declined to take a position against the two wars.
The next visit was to Nancy Skinner’s office, where she not only listened to the students but also queried them about their knowledge of state government and challenged some of their figures about the state of education in California. She too, though, applauded their interest in government.
Skinner discussed some of the difficulties she faces in defending public education, given the current power of conservative politicians to veto education-enabling legislation.
The final visit was with Senator Hancock, who spoke to the students inside the state senate chambers.
She said that it is so important that students take an interest in the education they are getting and that they try to improve that education by getting involved in government. She pointed out that many of her colleagues do not prioritize public services in California such as education and transportation. She noted that many Californians aren’t even aware of how much they depend on these services. Hancock asked the students: “How many of you think that BART is public?” and “How many of you think that BART is private?” In this informal poll, “private” received as many votes as “public,” indicating that students share in a common misconception.
At the end of the day, how did the students evaluate their interviews with the politicians? Some of the students expressed their appreciation for the welcome they received. But not all were satisfied with the responses given to their questions. Donnie Jones said although going to Sacramento was a valuable educational experience, the representatives “might not be doing what they need to do” to serve their constituents. Kenny Ward agreed, and said that the representatives “did not quite answer the questions.” Madonna Lee also found the answers evasive. Jacob Froneberger, an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley who helps out in the classroom, said that the controversy about the 2/3 rule for passing legislation is “something of a red herring,” since “a majority of the legislature has voted consistently to lower corporate taxes, which causes the lack of adequate revenue.”
Swanson, Skinner, and Hancock, who are among the most progressive legislators in state government, didn’t shield the students from the difficulties they face in protecting public education and other public services. And for many of the students, the prospect of really bettering their lives through their own participation in electoral politics is far from clear. In class, they’ve been learning how government works in theory. But in practice, they’re learning that it’s an ongoing struggle to have government serve the people.
On the whole, the students were quite enthusiastic about their trip to the state capitol, and grateful to the three representatives for taking the time to meet with them. Some of the students said that now for the first time they really understand how state government works, and how challenging it is for politicians to govern well.
Below is the list of questions that the students wanted to discuss with their state legislators:
California Public Policy: Questions for our State Representatives
We have gathered the information below from our study of California’s education crisis. Please correct us if we have been misinformed. How can we help you improve our state’s situation?
1. We have been told that compared to other states, California is #1 in spending on prisons and #48 in spending on education. It has been projected that by the 2012-2013 fiscal year, $15.4 billion will be spent on incarcerating Californians, as compared with $15.3 billion to be spent on educating them. In other words, more money will soon be spent on imprisoning Californians than on educating them. Who in the Senate or Assembly is leading the fight to change this? What can you do to improve the situation?
2. California has among the 10 largest economies in the world, and is the wealthiest state in the United States. It is home to the largest number of billionaires in the United States. Yet corporate taxes have steadily decreased. Who in the Senate or Assembly is leading the fight to change this? What can you do to improve the situation?
3. U.S. citizens have paid approximately 950 billion dollars on the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. Of that amount Californians have spent 115 billion dollars. The current California budget deficit is 26 billion dollars. Is there a relationship between California’s budget deficit and these wars? What is your position on spending for these wars versus spending on education and other critical social services normally provided to Californians?
4. California is the only state that does not enforce an oil severance tax? Do you believe in a progressive tax which taxes the rich? How would you change California’s tax structure to do so? What can you do to improve the situation for ordinary citizens?
5. California spends $1,900 less than the national state average on each student. What can you do to improve the situation?
6. It takes a 2/3 vote of the State legislature to pass a budget and to raise property taxes. Do you support or oppose these laws. If you oppose them, how do you propose to change them?
7. We now have term limits on State representatives? What is your position on term limits? Should we replace this rule and why? With what would we replace it?
8. Should the State boycott Arizona to voice opposition to Arizona Senate Bill 1070 which asks Arizona police authorities to arrest anyone they suspect might be an illegal immigrant?
Information provided to our class by the Oakland Education Association about the crisis in Oakland:
9. Oakland public school teachers have the lowest salaries in Alameda County. They have received only a 1.75% salary increase since 2010. Is this true and what can you do to improve this situation?
10. The State appointed school Trustee’s salary and benefits per year are over $311,000. With that money OUSD could hire 7 first year teachers. Meanwhile under state administration the OUSD debt and loan obligation to the state has more than doubled. Is this true and what can you do to improve this situation?
11. 19% of the OUSD budget is spent on outside contracts and services. The average school district in California only spends 10% of its budget on outside contracts and services. Is this true and what can you do to improve this situation?
12. The amount of money that the OUSD spends on administrative services is significantly higher than in other comparable districts. Is this true and what can you do to improve this situation?