By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
But herewith an immodest proposal of my own to address several of these problems with one big fix: Create a statewide living wage. Instead of simply raising the minimum wage, borrow from several municipal ordinances the standard that workers must be paid $7.50 an hour with health benefits, or $8.50 an hour without. And don't apply the ordinance just to workers under contract to the state, as cities have applied it just to city-contract employees. Apply it to everyone working in California. As a necessary corollary, create a huge small-business buyers pool for health insurance, with so large a client base that small businesses could more easily afford to offer benefits. Nothing short of a solution this comprehensive can even begin to address our slide to Mississippian levels of inequality and working-class poverty.
Patching the Potholes
The California infrastructure that was once the marvel of the world - the freeways, the UC campuses, the nation's largest public school system - was built in the 1950s and 1960s. It is now falling apart.
In the '50s, the state spent $1 for every $100 of Californians' personal income on building the state - the schools, the roads, the sidewalks. Today, it spends 7 cents for every $100. State spending on the University of California, the California State Universities and the community colleges dropped by 22 percent between 1975 and 1994. And our total spending on K-12 schools as a share of the state's total wealth ranks us 46th among the states.
There's one major change in the state constitution that could arrest the crumbling of California. Under current law, cities, counties, school districts and the state must win two-thirds voter support for any bond issue to fund new classrooms, smoother roads and the like. An energetic campaign by the new governor - one that particularly mobilized the Latino community, which has demonstrated a willingness to fund new school construction surpassing that of any other group in the state - might just persuade the electorate to restore majority rule on these questions. Moreover, there's no better use for the kind of budget surplus the state ran this year than to devote it to capital improvements. And if the current private-sector credit crunch signals an approaching recession, state infrastructure projects can also serve as an economic stimulus.
Fixing the Schools
California schools need both radically more funding and radically more accountability, and neither one is politically possible without the other. In particular, no state can seriously claim to be interested in improving the quality of education while offering starting salaries to teachers that are far lower than those of virtually any other career. Teaching should not be a profession for which monastic self-denial is a prerequisite.
That said, there need to be clear standards of accountability for principals and teachers, based both on peer assessments and on the changes in their pupils' standardized test scores. Tenure should not be a lifelong security blanket for non-performing faculty and administrators. A Democratic administration in California should commit to State Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin's proposal to raise the state's per-pupil education spending to the national average over the next five years - provided that administrative and faculty accountability is established on campuses.
And what, pray tell, are the prospects that Governor Gray Davis and a Democratic Legislature will adopt such measures? Davis is a decent figure not known for his daring, but ambition alone (and no one's ever questioned Davis' ambition) will certainly spur him to try to rebuild the once-golden state. His close relations to (some would say, dependence on) unions certainly make him open to measures to reduce income inequity and rebuild the infrastructure - though how open, exactly, will likely depend on the determination of progressives in pushing their priorities. By the same token, his close relations to (some would say, dependence on) teacher unions might deter him from demanding greater classroom acccountability. Or his bona fides with the very same unions might just make him the right man to negotiate an increased-funding-for-greater-accountability trade-off.
What's beyond dispute, sadly, is the uniqueness of the opportunity confronting California liberals should Davis and the Democrats win this November. Neither the federal government nor any other major state is likely to be in Democratic hands over the next two years. In the closing years of the century, as in its first two decades, California will be the proving ground for American progressives.
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