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COURSEY: A thousand cuts for education


Frank Pugh, the longest-serving member of the Santa Rosa Board of Education, summed it up simply in the story on Monday's Page 1:

"I hope the public really understands – they are dismantling, day-by-day, public education."

Pugh, who has been an elected school board member for more than 20 years, was talking about the latest proposal to save schools money – the elimination of a required second year of high school science. But he could have been talking about any number of educational cuts imposed in California in recent years: fewer school days, larger classes, cuts in funding for arts, libraries, counselors, transportation.

The proposal in Gov. Jerry Brown's 2012-2013 budget doesn't sound like a big deal. He would eliminate the requirement that California students, in order to graduate from high school, take at least two years of high school science.

But this proposal doesn't stand alone. It comes on the heels of all of those other cuts, and precedes what seems sure to be more to come.

Day-by-day and piece-by-piece, we are tearing apart the very foundation of the American dream, the notion that we all have an opportunity to succeed and thrive in this country. Without a decent education, opportunity is just that – a dream.

Public education has become a pawn in the great political game that is being played out in Sacramento this year. Gov. Brown has said that if voters don't pass his proposed tax increases in November, he will have to cut billions of dollars from public school budgets. Opponents of those proposed tax increases respond that Brown can make cuts elsewhere, or that schools should cut administrative or teacher costs in order to minimize the impact of budget cuts on students.

But, new taxes or not, the damage already is being done. As Kerry Benefield reported in Monday's story, per-pupil funding has been cut and annual cost of living increases have been frozen for the last five years in California, leaving districts with 80 percent of the funding they are entitled to by the state's minimum funding law.

Less than minimum. That's nothing to be proud of.

These cuts have real consequences on the education we are offering our children, just as the proposal to reduce the minimum science requirement will have real consequences.

Brown's staff portrays the science proposal as a boon to "local control" and "flexibility." "There's no reduction or elimination of dollars" associated with lifting the two-year science requirement, said a spokesman for the state Department of Finance.

But at a time when the rest of the budget is being cut, it's easy to envision how decisions will be made with that extra "control" and "flexibility." If science isn't required, the money will go to the classes that are, such as English and math, and the services that have been cut, such as transportation.

Not that there's anything wrong with teaching English and math. But a good education is a broad education, and today's students should be getting more science, not less. How many times have we heard that America needs more engineering, science and technology graduates to keep up with China and other nations that are actually improving their education systems, rather than dismantling them?

Pugh sounded frustrated and flabbergasted by Brown's budget proposal: "To me, it's absolutely astounding that the state of California, our leadership, would actually believe it would be appropriate not to have more science and actually have less science."

It should be astounding to all of us. And unacceptable. It's time to realize that we are allowing our public education system to suffer a death by a thousand cuts.

Chris Coursey's blog offers a community commentary and forum, from issues of the day to the ingredients of life in Sonoma County.