In it Together

The California Senate resumed formal activity last week, following an extended spring recess. It was hardly business as usual.  There was but one hearing scheduled – an April 16 meeting of a budget subcommittee tasked with getting a handle on the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.  Face mask snugly in place, Senator Holly Mitchell called the meeting to order, flanked by a single fellow committee-member to her right, and a solitary staffer to her left.  The Los Angeles Democrat surveyed the spacious – and largely empty – meeting room that, under ordinary circumstances, would have been filled to overflowing.  If you were among the thousands attempting to watch the proceedings via your desktop computer monitor or handheld device, you ended up viewing an error message.  So many people attempted to access the event remotely that the system crashed. Should you be interested, the entirety of the hearing is available for viewing, here.

Be forewarned: it’s a long slog through a series of densely technical reports from various state agency bureaucrats, followed by questioning from committee members that invites largely non-committal responses, and is capped by a cavalcade of public comments delivered via telephone from a variety of supplicants. If you’re not inclined to watch the replay, here’s all you really need to know.  According to Legislative Analyst Gabe Petek, the state Treasury can expect to see a revenue shortfall on par with that suffered during the so-called “Great Recession” of 2009, amounting to a $35 billion hit in the first year, and an additional loss of some $85 billion spread over the next several budget cycles. (Somewhere, on his northern California ranch, former Governor Jerry Brown is smiling ruefully and mouthing the words, “I told you so.”)

More than anything, the hearing put all interested parties on notice that the economic contagion associated with the COVID-19 pandemic is going to suck all the air out of a legislative agenda hoping to gild the lily. Medicare for all, California style? OK…that wasn’t going to happen to begin with. But with no Proposition 98-type funding guarantee, state spending on health and human services, initially budgeted at $47.4 billion for the coming year, now appears particularly vulnerable.  “Free” universal early education? Forget about it, at least for the time being.  Bold responses to the state’s affordable housing and homelessness problems?  The need will almost certainly increase.  With diminished resources at its disposal, the state will do well to tread water.

Even with the relative protection afforded by Proposition 98, California’s public schools are likely to be particularly hard hit.  The Governor’s preliminary budget proposal calls for a $3.15 billion expenditure to provide supplemental pension payments.  Of this sum, $850 million is being used to furnish what amounts to a bail-out to struggling school districts that committed to paying more than they can afford. Though he will come under intense pressure to “keep his promise,” a looming deficit may force the governor to rethink such largesse.

An influx of federal “CARES Act” funds may help beleaguered school districts backfill certain obligations (assuming the funding comes without “supplement not supplant” restrictions), or sustain employment over the short term. That said, districts teetering on the edge of insolvency were looking to the current election cycle to deliver urgently needed tax and bond initiatives whose chances of success were shaky to begin with. Come November, does anyone think a whopping tax increase on businesses in the form of a “split roll” transformation of Proposition 13 stands a snowball’s chance in you-know-where of passage?

Private schools face their own set of disquieting challenges including the distinct possibility of declining enrollments, increased need for financial assistance, diminished philanthropic support and outright closures.  If ever the time was right to make the case that California’s private schools help to ease the state’s financial burden, it is now.

Look at it this way. If California’s K-12 private schools comprised a single public school district, its 470,000 pupils would easily make it the second largest in the state, with more than triple the enrollment of the next largest district. It would employ more fulltime teachers (41,827) than any other district.  It would also operate nearly three times as many campuses as the Los Angeles Unified School District (the largest district in the state on the basis of enrollment).  In fact, it can be conservatively estimated that California’s K-12 private schools currently save the state $5 billion, annually.

It would behoove both the Governor and members of the Legislature to acknowledge the role contributed by California’s private K-12 schools in educating 7.2 percent of the state’s corresponding enrollment, providing employment to tens of thousands of tax-payers, and saving the state billions of dollars every year.  At the very least, the state should underwrite the cost of cleaning and disinfecting private school sites when it is deemed safe for students to return to their respective campuses. The Legislature has already appropriated $100 million to clean and disinfect public school campuses.  On a proportionate basis, $7.2 million should be made available to ensure that all educational facilities have been rendered safe.

A virus draws no distinction between public and private schools. When it comes to public health, private schools, the pupils who attend them, and the administrators, teachers, and additional staff who operate them are members of the public.  If private school campuses cannot be appropriately cleansed and disinfected, the health and well-being of public school pupils and their families will be put at risk.  We are all in this together.

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