Government Spending

Workaday Media Bias, and State Budget Crises, Example #2


Here are the first four paragraphs of an Associated Press article about education spending in California.

Would you fire this man?

California's historic budget crisis threatens to devastate a public education system that was once considered a national model but now ranks near the bottom in school funding and academic achievement.

Deep budget cuts are forcing California school districts to lay off thousands of teachers, expand class sizes, close schools, eliminate bus service, cancel summer school programs, and possibly shorten the academic year.

Without a strong economic recovery, which few experts predict, the reduced school funding could last for years, shortchanging millions of students, driving away residents and businesses, and darkening California's economic future.

"California used to lead the nation in education," U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said during a recent visit to San Francisco. "Honestly, I think California has lost its way, and I think the long-term consequences of that are very troubling."

Not mentioned anywhere in the entire 1,093-word article: "[S]pending for kindergarten through 12th grade education in the Governor's proposed budget for 2008-09 [was] $7.4 billion higher than it was five years ago—and average daily attendance during that same period has declined by 74,000 students." Nor is there uttered the phrase "Proposition 98," which is a 20-year-old law that locks in K-14 education spending at 40 percent of California's budget. Considering that the California budget between 1990-91 and 2008-2009 grew by an average of 5.91 percent, compared to an inflation+population growth rate of 4.38 percent, that has resulted in two decades of robust education funding increases.

More relevant data, care of the Reason Foundation [pdf]:

To read some reports in the media, one might think that education is the perpetual whipping boy of the state budget process. In fact, education spending—for both K-12 and higher education—has seen a steady and significant increase, especially in recent years. From FY 1990-91 to FY 2008-09, General Fund K-12 education spending increased 191.5 percent (6.11 percent a year on average)—a greater rate than the overall General Fund budget grew.

Also not mentioned in the article are the $48.9 billion in school construction/maintenance bonds passed this decade alone (at a time of decreasing enrollment), or that firing teachers is a perennial California scare story, one that almost never results in significant amounts of teachers actually getting fired. (This is due in part to the fact that in many districts, it's nigh on impossible to fire a teacher.) Might this latter factor contribute to California's wretched K-12 academic performance? The article does not dip a toe in any such analysis, relying instead on a two-pronged explanation of slashed funding and under-educatable immigrants:

The unprecedented budget cuts mark a new low for a once highly regarded public school system that began its decline in 1978, when voters approved Proposition 13 […]

about a quarter [of public school students] do not speak English well, and nearly half are considered poor under federal guidelines.

I don't doubt for a second that teaching poor immigrants with ESL needs adds strain to a public education system. But nor do I doubt that in a better world, articles from straight news organizations might sound less like press releases from the California Teachers Association, and more like searching assessments of a complicated issue.

Well, at least the AP story wasn't picked up by 193 news outlets or anything. 

Yesterday's example of workaday media bias here. Also, read the Reason Foundation's great education analyst Lisa Snell talk about California Democrat "budget-cutting" proposals here.