How an Internet Map Tool Is Helping People Understand Education Cuts in California

7 years ago

It’s not news to anyone that our schools are going through hard times right now. With budget cuts in all states, the term “education crisis” is kind of an understatement. That’s why I find it so inspiring that a grassroots effort in California is bringing visual awareness to the problems at hand so that people might better understand how and why things need fixed.

An article ran on about an Internet map tool created by Sreeram Balakrishnan so that citizens in California can easily see how they are being affected. He paired up with Cynthia Liu of K-12 News Network and Hoi Yung Poon, executive director of Parents for Great Education. I was lucky enough to get to interview Liu about the issues at hand, her thoughts and hopes and what this tool -- and these struggles -- mean for the rest of the country.

While the interactive tool was originally created for California, I encourage you to read this important interview no matter where you live. Education cuts are happening everywhere and it is our duty as concerned parents to be aware of what they really mean for our children.

JH: For those who are not from California, please explain what we’re seeing on this map.

CL: A little bit of background: California's currently facing a budget deficit that the governor has proposed we fix by extending revenues and making cuts. He calls this a balanced approach. But because the budget has to pass with a 2/3 "supermajority" in the State Senate and Assembly, most Republicans have opted for the all-cuts approach that Meg Whitman campaigned and lost on just last winter in 2010. They've held up the process. A small group of the GOP, 2 in each part of the legislature *might* join the Democrats to make a supermajority and pass revenues that we already pay for, extending these for 4-5 years. Basically, without revenue extension, school funding goes off a cliff. Money from sales, car and other taxes that help fund schools simply ends after June 30.

So the map shows what the consequences of an all-cuts budget are if no revenues are passed. We wanted to show what happens on a per-pupil basis, the pain of lost funding for a classroom of 30, and what will be lost for a school district. Some lawmakers have been claiming that unanticipated revenue takes care of the problem, but we know that's hand-waving and wishful thinking that applies to next year only. That's what I mean about the funding cliff. What are schools supposed to do two, three, and four years out from now? They need consistent funding, because they budget three years into the future.

Layered over school district boundaries on the map tool are State Senate and Assembly districts so it's possible to see who's responsible for your neighborhood school's steep tumble into trouble if a key vote doesn't happen.

JH: The technical stuff of the map came about separate from your work. Were you ecstatic when you began to realize what was possible with this tool?

CL: Yes -- I'd had in mind a school funding tool ever since I launched K12NN in January, 2011. I knew that raw data on California school budgets were available online, but truly, it's so complicated that very few people in the entire state can put together the pieces (state constitution, propositions, local, city, county, and real property taxes, plus state and federal money) and get the big picture right. That lack of clarity allows people hostile or indifferent to public education to make all sorts of misleading claims. Parents around the state badly needed facts and figures. It was great to take my idea to a Google Maps expert and a group of parents who were as concerned about public school funding as I was. I led the team through a lot of long nights and weekends putting the tool together. We consulted with experts in education finance and the people at the California Budget Project were key in giving us feedback on their data.

JH: What do you expect this tool to accomplish? Is it just the visual “seeing” of the information to help them vote or do you expect more parents to get involved after they understand what is really going on?

CL: The tool's a starting point. It paints an accurate, and dire, picture and hopefully conveys urgency to everyone who uses it. We've gotten great feedback from parents, school administrators, PTA/PTO members, and the media on the tool. Both organizations that collaborated on the tool, my company K12NN and Parents for Great Education, were part of a statewide coalition of grassroots groups. Some people used the tool at demonstrations and rallies to explain what's at stake. Others took the information into legislators' offices and asked their elected representatives directly what they were doing to solve the problem. All across the state, people came and checked out their school districts. They were directed to action alerts where they could call and visit lawmakers.

We've had a lot of people ask us to update the tool and give the whole picture of school funding. It was always my original goal and we're now seeing how we can possibly take on that project.

I think people are hungry for information they can digest about something they care about -- school funding -- that's gotten needlessly complicated and unwieldy. This is partly why the Journalism 2.0 and Government 2.0 movements are so important -- K12NN came out of both of those movements and helped start a conversation around school funding reform that I hope people will continue to be engaged in. Certainly parents feel a need for a systemic solution very keenly -- everyone's thinking, "Do we have to go through this all over again when they have to pass next year's budget?"

I can't imagine that we are the only state experiencing these struggles right now. In fact, at this year's BlogHer, I'll be looking for people to help blog what's happening around the country in local neighborhood schools.

JH: Do you hope -- or even believe -- that a tool of this nature will become more commonplace to help parents, educators and law makers understand the issues at hand? Or do you think it would be met by some resistance from certain people?

CL: It's not only the tool, but it's educating the public to understand, for example, that the lottery does not fund schools despite what we may all believe. This is a new kind of journalism that requires people to interact. If there's resistance, it'll be from people who are more comfortable having pre-chewed information presented. But I find that parents and tech-savvy moms especially are not passive consumers -- of anything. This is our kids' educations we're talking about. We make time for the things we care deeply about.

I hope tools like these become more commonplace. I started K12NN because I wanted to have long-form, sustained, meaningful conversations about education news that I feel is missing from sound-bite oriented mainstream media. We have a big No Child Left Behind citizens' focus group project we're launching soon, to parallel the review of this law in Congress.

JH: I’ve spent some time clicking around the map and I find it fascinating -- and I’m not from California. Have any other states been in contact to see how they might create a similar tool for their state?

CL: Not yet. We'd like to tackle a comprehensive California school funding tool first. But we're definitely also interested in what's happening around the country in all of the state legislatures, so it's a long-term goal. Budget crises coupled with steep tax cuts for the wealthy and huge corporations means less revenue for the things we all need and benefit from.

JH: What advice do you have to give to parents, educators and law makers in other areas or states struggling with the same cut-backs?

CL: We're facing what I call gender-deafness -- it's mostly women running PTOs and teaching in the classroom who have direct experience with how kids are doing under Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind. Yet it's mostly men, and tax cut-loving men at that, who are dominating state legislatures that pass state school budgets right now. To counter that, we need to put all our voices together and use the megaphone of social media to set policymakers straight.

Band together. Demand that we plan for, invest in, and fund tomorrow's growth -- and that means schools. Take an active role in shaping education policy. You know what's happening in your local schools -- tell other people about it. Truth is going to have to come from the grassroots up -- isn't this the amazing lesson of BlogHer as well when it comes to what we women experience? This is the time to make yourself heard, because all the presidential candidates will be forming the education planks of their platforms NOW. Get out in front of the issues, don't let them roll over you. And form strong alliances. Teachers and parents can be tremendous allies around things like small class sizes.

We have to assert ourselves, because moneyed interests (what I call Big Ed) don't see your kids, they see a gold mine.

JH: If you could have people understand one thing -- just one! -- about the state of education as a result of continuous cuts, what would that be?

CL: Great public schools don't happen by accident. They are carefully planned for, prioritized at funding time, nurtured through active, strong, and healthy communities, and are crucial parts of the neighborhood. We must rededicate ourselves to the great public institutions that built this country, and that means putting resources where they're needed most. In California we're told all the time how we're the eighth largest world economy. Why are our schools 47th in per pupil spending? The same goes for America -- we have a standard of living that's the envy of much of the world, but we can't give our schools the resources they need? Something's akilter, and we need to re-align our priorities. Kids don't have a lobby -- we're it.

I encourage you to hop around the tool on Liu’s site. Maybe you can pester some other concerned parent in your state to start working on one for your schools. At the very least, take Liu’s words to heart: Great public schools don’t happen by accident.

Are you concerned about education cuts? Do you think your state would benefit from a tool like this one so that people could actually see how they are being affected?

Family Section Editor Jenna Hatfield (@FireMom) blogs at Stop, Drop and Blog and The Chronicles of Munchkin Land.

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