Teacher strikes across California have focused much-needed attention on the overwhelming challenges facing public education. While the state economy booms, teachers are asking why they haven’t received the salary increases they deserve. Others are wondering why extra education funding for vulnerable students hasn’t produced more services.
Some are pointing fingers at charter schools, others at the financial impact of declining student enrollment. Most are ignoring the elephant in the room: billions of dollars in unfunded pension costs.
Our politicians must confront this crisis. Besides raising more revenue for education, they need to make some tough choices about how to invest the funds they already have. Our neediest communities must be empowered both to support their teachers and to increase critical services for low-income students, foster youths and English learners.
The Big Squeeze, a recent report from Pivot Learning analyzing the budgets of nearly 100 school districts, documents the impact of rapidly rising pension costs on teachers and students. It also offers solutions that would begin to stabilize the crisis and increase equity.
In 2014, to help close the staggering $75 billion funding gap in its teacher pension system, the state directed school districts to significantly increase their contributions. At the time, districts spent an average of $500 per pupil on pensions; in 2020, they’ll be contributing an average of $1,600 per pupil.
To stay afloat, districts are deferring maintenance on school buildings, increasing class sizes, delaying textbook purchases, and cutting crucial programs and services such as art, music, nursing and counseling.