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Mathews: Does California yet need another school bond?

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Gov. Gavin Newsom and other state leaders have been bursting with self-congratulation about the new state school bond they’ve just placed on the March 2020 ballot.

And they have some reason to do so. This school bond is designed to address some problems of previous such bonds, especially around equity. In the past, school bond money, which requires matching funds, has gone disproportionately to communities with wealth and strong existing plants. This new bond is designed to make things a little more even, and put more money into modernization of school plants — to make drinking water safe, address health and safety and update structures for seismic reasons.

But those improvements don’t address the larger question: Why does California need yet another state school bond? Much less a $15 billion bond, the largest in the history of the state.

We just approved a $9 billion bond in 2016. And that came on top of state school bonds in 2006, 2004, 2002, 1998 and 1996. Indeed, between 1996 and last year, the state’s voters approved $109 billion in school bonds.

And it shows. As I travel the state, schools are consistently the most beautiful and best maintained buildings in every community. That’s a very good thing. But more school construction is not our top educational need now. Indeed, we may have too many school facilities as a low birth rate, declining immigration and the high cost of living produce fewer California kids.

What we need in our schools is better education. And the top priority should be more instruction time — more days in the school year and more hours in the day for actual teaching and learning. That’s where new billions from the state would come in handy. Greater time has a high correlation with greater academic performance; the quality of facilities does not.

But instead of giving our kids more time to learn, the state has been obsessed with putting more regulations on charter schools. And the state has failed to address the crucial fiscal problem of schools — rising retiree benefit costs, which are crowding out funds that could go to today’s students and teachers.

Our schools lack money to do what is necessary, and construction bonds are not cheap. A $15 billion bond will cost about $30 billion to pay back. And the bonds’ size doesn’t reflect real needs so much as the political backing of the companies and unions that benefit from school construction.

I’m the father of three children who are in their early years of public schools. I think this state should be spending tens of billions more annually on its schools. But I care very little about the facilities in which they learn. I want them to learn more and the teachers and staff who work with them to have more support and better pay, so they can do more for them.

Joe Mathews is co-author of “California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It.” From Fox and Hounds Daily.

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com.

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