Big solutions are better than tinkering in education

In the past few weeks states and cities have started reporting budget surpluses. From Arkansas to Greenville to Texas, the coffers are full. Perhaps the biggest winner for the past year is California with a surplus of $75.7 billion. Already there is discussion as to what to do with the excess funds. When large sums of money come into play, often they are chopped into multiple pieces in an attempt to please everyone. Tinkering at problems is a little like dueling windmills. It is a fool’s option.

Our societal and in particular education challenges are much bigger than spending dollars here and there. It takes a focused agenda to address poverty, inequity, and teacher shortages to name just a few. When managing these unexpected surpluses, it would be better to focus on one issue to address. Governor Newsom of California could take the $75.7 billion and make an impact. Here’s a couple ideas:

  1. Return to tuition-free college for state residents: It would take an estimated $4.3 billion per year to provide tuition-free college for California residents in the UCs and Cal State universities. If the $75.7 billion earned no income (interest, etc.) that would be 17+ years of tuition free university for Caifornia residents. Alternatively, the funds could be placed in an endowment fund earning even as money is taken out to expand the years that this program could be offered.
  2. Universal preschool for all: This is a popular idea, but what is often proposed only provides preschool for disadvantaged families. While I absolutely agree that those are most in need, I also know that policy that is enjoyed by all, whether fair or not, has a better chance of staying in place. Imagine trying to take social security away. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, who clearly do not need any extra income, receive social security benefits. It isn’t about need; it is about providing a service to everyone just like the roads we drive on and the public schools available to our children. Universal preschool has been called the “best investment Americans can make in education.” Although often debated for its long-term effects, there is significant evidence that an investment in early education can have long-term benefits, particularly for disadvantaged students. The cost of universal preschool in California is estimated at $2.69 billion (in 2021 dollars). This is equal to 28+ years of universal preschool with no additional funding.
  3. Paying teachers as professionals: The massive teacher shortage that has plagued us for more than a decade is no surprise. Teachers are largely underpaid and unappreciated in our society. Attracting and retaining the best and the brightest to the profession takes a true investment. According to a report from the University of Southern California, the median teacher salary in California in 2019-2020 was $82,746. Starting salaries begin near $45,000 depending on an individual’s education and years of experience. To put this in perspective, the median teacher salary in San Francisco Unified is $75,872 yet the median home in San Francisco costs $1.3 million. The median salary of a software engineer in San Francisco is $163,393, not accounting for stock bonuses. Personal assistants in the same area earn $80,000 to $120,000 a year. We expect teachers to educate the next generation and pay them little. Using the $75.7 billion surplus to raise teacher salaries could have a large impact on generations to come.

If Newsom chose just one, it could have a longer-term impact than the piecemeal division of funds.

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