This fall, the second windfall of class-size reduction money for California’s public schools was made possible by California’s booming economy.

Under the terms of 1988’s Proposition 98, more than 98 percent of the new tax money must be spent on public schools, leading some pundits to quip that the legislative analyst must have confused the number of Prop. 98 with the percentage of tax money mandated for schools.

This new funding demands no accountability, and the checks are being cut despite the failure of our public schools to achieve even the most basic educational reforms.

This extraordinarily lopsided spending comes, ironically, at the expense of pressing needs that resulted from the failures of our public schools. Because of the failure to teach job skills and ethical values, our prison population has exploded more than sixfold since 1971, and our welfare costs have skyrocketed. And yet, all of the other spending priorities of the state put together will now fight over the last 2 percent of the new tax money.

Although the public school establishment loves to plead poverty, per-student spending in California has been at a near-record for years, and is now at an all-time high. Not only has the money been wastefully spent in the past, but all of the most important reforms of our public education system would be cost-free, or nearly so.

For example:

– Far more money could be channeled into the classroom by reducing the bloated bureaucracy. A 1990 study by the United Teachers – Los Angeles showed that 31 percent of all tax money in the LAUSD was being absorbed by the central office alone not counting school site administration or overhead at the federal, state and county level. A 1996 Rand study echoed these conclusions for California as a whole.

– Our only teacher competency test in California the CBEST is claimed to be a 10th-grade proficiency exam, but is really an eighth-grade-level test. Demanding that public school teachers demonstrate knowledge consistent with the college degrees they are supposed to have would cost nothing.

– We haven’t had a student competency exam since the simplistic CLAS test was scuttled in 1994. The roughly $35 million that has now been budgeted for this expense at the insistence of Gov. Wilson represents one-tenth of 1 percent of the entire California Department of Education budget. Why did the CDE drag its feet for so long on a simple test to see if the kids can read and write?

– An end to tenure, the corrupt system that makes public school teaching a government job guaranteed for life, wouldn’t cost the taxpayers a cent.

– When Delaine Eastin took office, she promised to simplify California’s 11-volume educational code, a tome so unwieldy no one even claims to know what’s in it. Three years later, the code is longer than ever.

– Prohibiting the giant teachers’ unions from making political payoffs to the very school officials who are supposed to supervise school employees would cost nothing. Of course, since Eastin herself owes her entire political career to money from the CTA, reform won’t happen without a shake-up at the polls.

Of course, the real way to ensure accountability, improve results, and slash bureaucracy is school choice. With vouchers, there will be a day of reckoning: no students, no vouchers; no vouchers, no school. Californians will soon be offered this option in the polling booth, when there will at last be an alternative to a bloated public school system that doesn’t deliver.

Alan Bonsteel is a San Francisco physician and co-author of “A Choice for Our Children: Curing the Crisis in America’s Schools.”

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