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March 03, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Editorial: A call to action for our children Editorial: A call to action for our children (March 03, 2004)

Community events coalesce on need for renewed effort, turnaround of state and local priorities for education, care, support

A statewide "tragedy of unintended consequences" has befallen California's children, and it's up to us to do something about it.

That message is ringing loudly in Palo Alto, long a leader in education, in a series of community forums in late February through March 20.

Speakers at an "SOS for Our Children: Crisis in the Schools" Town Hall forum Feb. 21 bluntly said California is failing its children by ranking 45th in the nation in per-pupil funding for schools and in hyper-pressuring students to achieve. A Mothers' Symposium next Saturday addresses how to "parent from the heart" as an antidote to the world outside. (See stories and columns elsewhere in this issue.) And a March 20 conference will explore how to strengthen families in the face of a culture that pulls at family structures and time.

The theme of "unintended consequences" being at the root of many of today's funding problems for schools and family health programs was voiced eloquently by Palo Alto schools Superintendent Mary Frances Callan. Callan dropped her trademark cool polish as a speaker and spoke bluntly to the 125-person audience, citing both a long-term and short-term funding crisis statewide and locally.

She said the long-term problem goes back three decades, first to the Serrano/Priest court decision that mandated funding equalization between richer and poorer school districts, then to the 1978 Proposition 13, which capped property taxes as a source of revenues.

Callan said she would like to ask Proposition 13's backers -- "who said it would not hurt children" -- some questions:

"Did you intend to drop the (school) funding for our children from 10th to 45th" nationally?

"Did you really intend to move all of the local control to Sacramento?

"Did they intend that as a result of this that we have children who do not have medical care? Children who do not get meals in the morning and come to school hungry? Children who are so stressed that they believe the only answer is to walk in front of a train and kill themselves?"

She said she didn't think that was the intent, but the damage is now compounded short-term by the $30 billion state deficit -- and only cutting programs, not raising taxes, is on the table in Sacramento.

And the cuts affect those who are unable to lobby: "Our children can't go up there and say, 'What are you doing to me?'" she said. While prisons escape serious cuts, most reductions are "being made on the backs of our children."

Palo Altans have been partially insulated by high home values and resultant property taxes, but "that's not right, either," Callan said. "Every child in this state deserves what we have here. And now we're having to reduce that," referring to $4.1 million in local cuts that need to be made this year.

Callan said she was heartened when the new governor and new secretary of education voiced support for an "adequacy model" of education statewide. "But I was disenheartened when they said they could do this with the dollars we currently have -- 45th in the nation. I will tell you, and I hope you tell them, it is not possible. It cannot be done.

"We need new revenue streams for our children. Society is judged by how it values its children, and I have to tell you right now, our score is a minus-10."

She said the score is a plus in Palo Alto only because of the commitment of parents, in time and money.

"But that should be happening for every child in this state," she said.

"I hope that every one of you becomes an advocate," she said. Advocacy can be anything from writing to the state to encourage finding a way to provide adequate funding for schools to becoming directly involved in donating to local fundraising efforts to help keep staff and teachers aboard.

Other speakers echoed her concerns and despair about funding and student stress, and added concerns about substance use being higher than the national average.

The Weekly is proud to be among the numerous co-sponsoring organizations behind this renewed effort to generate positive action on an intolerable situation. As a state, we are better than our partisan-politics performance in this vital area of educating and nurturing our next generation.

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