Fat in California's budget

Posted: Jun 21, 2004 12:00 AM

 Whenever there is a budget deficit, politicians automatically want taxes raised. In our private lives, whenever we find ourselves running out of money, most of us think about cutting back on our spending. Not so in government.

 Despite California's record budget deficit there is still a lot of fat left that has not yet been cut -- and may never be cut. Every pound of fat has a constituency ready to proclaim that the world will end if the spending is toned down, much less eliminated.

 Typical of such political spin is a "news" story about California in a recent issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, the trade publication of the academic world. The headline says: "Preparatory programs at universities help low-performing pupils excel, but budget cuts imperil the efforts."

 Wait a minute. I thought 12 years of taxpayer-provided education were supposed to prepare students for college. Now we have to have courses in college to prepare students for college?

 The long, rambling story in The Chronicle of Higher Education, complete with photographs, at no point offers any hard evidence that these programs actually work any better than the public schools, which have obviously failed if you need such remedial programs in college.

 Instead, the Mathematics Engineering Science Achievement program (MESA) is praised because it helps students become "excited" about math and science. "Exciting" is one of the big fad words in educational circles, as if getting your emotions worked up is the same as mastering skills.

 In keeping with the excitement theme, students in this program are pictured making balloon-powered rockets and one of them is quoted as saying that this program "inspires" him to go to school.

 One of the teachers in this program calls it "crazy" to cut the program -- "as he watches another balloon-powered rocket fly across the room." But just what is this actually accomplishing?

 The teacher says, "Look at this: It gets a bunch of diverse cultures into one room to build things. You always feel like a family here. It's just a good place."

 But actual bottom-line results in terms of math and science? According to The Chronicle of Higher Education: "State leaders are often foggy on what exactly the various programs do, and it takes many years for supporters of the programs to gather tangible evidence of their long-term impact."

 Apparently the state legislators have not been too foggy to spend $85 million of the taxpayers' money to bankroll this program that apparently cannot show hard evidence of serious improvement in math and science, as a result of balloons flying across the room in this "good place."

 As for needing "many years" to document their success, that is a strange claim. I once ran a six-week summer program in economics for black students and documented its results simply by giving the students an economics exam at the beginning and at the end -- both exams being sent away to be graded by others at the Educational Testing Service in Princeton.

 Why would it take "many years" to show any tangible improvement in math and science by the students in California's $85 million program? Or is this just a way of postponing accountability -- indefinitely?

 Even if we take it on faith that it really does require "many years" to produce results, the cold fact is that this program has been going on since 1970. That's 34 years. Is that not yet "many years"?

 Because this is a program for low-income and minority students, lower expectations may be tolerated. But the real irony is that Jaime Escalante produced hard evidence of high achievement in math by low-income Mexican American students years ago. And he didn't take 34 years to do it or require an $85 million budget.

 At one time, one-fourth of all the Mexican American students who passed advanced placement calculus -- in the entire country -- came from the school where Jaime Escalante taught.

 Incidentally, Mr. Escalante is still around. They could always ask him how he did it, if they really wanted to know. But they already know how to get millions of taxpayer dollars, which apparently is what it is all about.