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After 35 years in public education as a high school English teacher and university administrator, I began my second life as a freelance writer, winning San Diego Society of Professional Journalist awards for my opinion columns in the former San Diego daily North County Times and the San Diego Free Press.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Irresponsibility, not spending, is the problem

For San Diego's North County Times

In a recent speech on school reform, LA schools superintendent John Deasy attacked the assumption in America that anybody can teach. Describing teaching as "remarkably complex, deeply nuanced, highly technical skilled work," he declared it to be "rocket science to have a third-grader master the skill of decoding print into cognitive and coherent meaning." He could have also pointed out that rocket science skills are acquired, not inherited, dispelling the myth that teachers are born, not made.

It's no wonder teachers are underpaid for the important work they do. Why would we pay them more if their work is so easy, requiring little or no training, and there's an endless supply of those who love to work with kids?

Who do we value more than teachers, based on what they're paid, besides rocket scientists? According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, the average salary of California elementary school teachers is $63,000.

Here's a small sample of occupations commanding pay ranging from an average of $70,000 to $111,000, but requiring no more education and training than teachers: computer hardware engineers and programmers, landscape architects, civil engineers, dental hygienists, chiropractors, personal finance advisers, registered nurses, police officers, firefighters, insurance sales agents and undertakers.

Personnel costs represent about 85 percent of most school district budgets, so when schools face cuts, it usually involves teacher layoffs, reductions in pay and benefits, or both. The Carlsbad Unified School District faces a potential $11 million shortfall in next year's budget. Ruling out increasing class sizes, since they were raised last year, the district has invited the public to weigh in on what should be cut by responding to a survey on the district's website.

It's more of a setup than a survey, though, an invitation to comment anonymously on a list of cuts school officials have already prioritized. Leading the list is, you guessed it, employee compensation reductions, just one step higher on the chopping block than slashing special education expenses.

The median household income of nearly 1 in 4 Carlsbad households exceeds $100,000. Will the wealthiest city in North County, boasting of a $50 million-plus general fund reserve and flush enough to give yearly million dollar bailouts to its failing golf course, be willing to help bail out its underfunded public schools? I'm not holding my breath.

The most predictable applause line these days in speeches by conservative politicians is, "We don't have a revenue problem; we have a spending problem." But when it comes to investing in our children's future by those who have the means to do it, I'd say, we don't have a spending problem, we have an irresponsibility problem.

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