Sad but true: It made sense for a state judge to put the brakes on the state Board of Education's plan to compel all students to take Algebra I in middle school. The plan made sense in many ways, but it made little sense in one vital and undeniable way: We cannot afford it.
California must get back on track economically before the state can get back on track educationally. California must be able to compete with the rest of the world in math and science, but we've got to be able to pay for the programs that can get us there.
Last month's decision enjoined the state from demanding universal Algebra I within three years. The state Board of Education had claimed the mandate was necessary to meet the terms of the federal No Child Left Behind law. However, the judge said the order was enacted without sufficient public discussion.
Only half of eighth-graders are now enrolled in Algebra I, and only a quarter are proficient in it. But with huge budget cuts due most any day, K-12 schools will be forced to make painful cuts to existing programs. Spending money to revise math curricula, buy textbooks and recruit algebra teachers would be the height of folly.
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The algebra initiative would have cost as much as $3.1 billion -- a figure that's roughly the equivalent of a sixth of the state's education budget. It is a budget, it bears noting, that is shrinking fast.
This budget crisis points out an uncomfortable truth that is bigger than California's algebra deficit, or any other single need: Sacramento tends to spend first and worry about the bill later, if at all.
Giving students the tools they'll need to succeed in advanced math and science is a worthy goal, but we can't bankrupt the treasury to get there. Otherwise, those students we profess to care so much about will be paying our debts for decades.