Two years ago Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proclaimed January 29 Milton Friedman Day to honor the late Nobel laureate, his “intellectual hero,” whose Free to Choose book and documentary proved “life changing.” The governor and the legislature, unfortunately, have not allowed Milton Friedman’s ideas to change the lives of California parents and students.
“Why is it that our educational system is turning out youngsters who cannot read, write, or figure?” Friedman once asked. “The answer—simple but nonetheless correct—is that our current school system is a monopoly that is being run primarily by the teachers’ unions.” He concluded, “The people who run the unions aren’t bad people; …[but] their interests and the interests of a good school system are not the same.” Consider the California Teachers Association’s latest radio ad campaign.
The CTA claims California “sank” to 47th nationally in school spending according to Education Week’s annual Quality Counts ranking. California actually floated up from 48th place on last year’s ranking—when CTA president David A. Sanchez first claimed that the governor’s 2009-2010 budget would “certainly guarantee that the amount California spends on its students remains locked at the bottom nationwide.” If that were true at least California would have plenty of company. Last year Florida, Illinois, Nebraska, Nevada, and Oklahoma all claimed to be 48th in school funding, too.
State and national experts agree that California is about average when it comes to school spending—including the CTA’s own parent organization, the National Education Association, which ranks California in 25th place nationally. As U.S. Department of Education statistician Frank Johnson cautions, “California per-pupil funding is near the middle [nationally]. Some people are presenting data in a way that supports their (political) views.”
The latest CTA media blitz is a dishonest defense of a dysfunctional monopoly for which no amount of money, it seems, will ever be enough. At $40 billion, California’s annual state general-fund spending just on K-12 public education rivals numerous Fortune 500 companies in revenue, albeit not results, outranking Intel, Walt Disney, Apple, Gap, Google, Hilton Hotels, and Yahoo, to name a few.
Total public school funding from all state, local, and federal sources is much more, increasing to almost $70 billion in real inflation-adjusted terms from the 2003-04 school year to the 2006-07 school year. That’s a funding increase of nearly 10 percent at a time when statewide enrollment decreased more than 30,000 students. More important is how the funding is being used.
Since 2003, the CTA has spent almost $25 million on lobbyists. Likewise, California school districts have managed to scrape together nearly $14 million combined for lobbyists since 2003—to convince the legislature they’re underfunded. During the last legislative session alone, 91 school districts hired lobbyists, including the Oxnard School District ($146,303.93); Sacramento City Unified ($151,963.90); Grant Joint Union ($153,878.27); and Fresno Unified ($174,043.17). Other school districts spent even more.
Pleasant Valley spent $214,325.97 on lobbyists, while San Diego Unified spent $406,859.00. At nearly $1.4 million, the Los Angeles Unified School District spent the most of any school district on lobbyists. Add the nearly $3 million spent by other public schooling organizations during the last legislative session. The United Teachers of Los Angeles spent more than $165,000, and the Ventura County Board of Education spent just under $150,000. Meanwhile, the San Diego County Superintendent of Schools spent more than half a million dollars on lobbying.
Those who purport to represent the interest of educators and students should consider giving pink slips to their lobbyists instead of teachers. Schools should compete for students and teachers should be paid according to their performance and market demand. Parents and students should be “free to choose” their schools, as Milton Friedman said. Adding those three words to the California Education Code would improve financial discipline and change the lives of millions of California students for the better.
Vicki E. Murray, Ph.D., is Education Studies Senior Policy Fellow at the Pacific Research Institute in Sacramento. Evelyn B. Stacey is PRI Education Studies Research Associate.