Lesson Plan for Teachers

‘Teachable Moments’ Lesson Plan and Discussion Guide:


Making Sense of Budget Cuts

 to California Public Education and Social Services


This discussion guide is to help students and community people learn about the roots of the California budget crisis and what we can do about it. It can be used in many settings:  university, college, high school or community.  Teachable Moments was developed by a committee of university students, faculty, staff and community members. The lesson plan is meant to be used along with a vampire flyer, which outlines the root causes of the budget cuts.[1]


We include discussion outlines of 30 minutes, 60 minutes, and also provide activities you can use if you have more time.  Of course each discussion leader will tailor the outline as needed.


30-minute lesson plan: Activity 1 & 2

60-minute lesson plan: Activity 1, 2, 3 & 4

80+ minute lesson plan: Activity 1, 2, 3 & Alternate Activity #4




The recent massive budget cuts to public education, health and human services in the state of California have largely been framed by the mass-media as an inevitable outgrowth of the economic downturn—a kind of economic “El Niño.”   Politicians and the mass media present the public with an array of other misleading arguments about the root causes of the budget cuts, such as:

-       Welfare recipients and home health aides are “taking advantage of the system” (source: Gov. Schwarzenegger’s opinion editorial in the Los Angeles Times, July 5, 2009);

-       California has been on a wild “spending spree;”

-       Immigrants are sinking the California economy because they came here to soak up our outstanding services and benefits;

-       and so on

This discussion guide will introduce an alternative explanation of the root causes of the budget cuts. This lesson is designed to help learners critically examine “strategic deficits” as a game plan introduced under the Reagan administration 30 years ago.  This concept set up the budget crisis we experience today. 




By the end of this lesson learners will:


    * Identify how budget cuts have impacted themselves and their communities.

    * Critically think about mainstream perspectives on the current budget cuts.

    * Be able to identify specific policies that have been implemented in California under a strategic deficit framework.

    * Be able to discuss the connection between the growth in prison spending and funding cuts to public education.

-       (longer workshops) Be able to name activist organizations in your segment of education that learners can hook up with.

-       Be familiar with some specific proposals to rebuild the public sector, restore revenue, and end the incarceration binge.

-       (longer workshop) Begin to envision what a vibrant and democratic public education and public sector could look like. 



Sections of this lesson plan that are in italics are sample language that you may want to say out loud to learners/participants.



Activity 1: What Do The Budget Cuts Mean For Us?


Overview: This activity is designed to get learners talking about how the budget cuts have impacted themselves and their communities. The discussion leader will briefly review the list of cutbacks, then learners will be divided into pairs to discuss how they have been affected. A large group discussion will help to draw out common themes.


If at all possible, assign learners to read the Vampire flyer before the discussion, and to highlight it and write questions and comments in the margins. 


Materials needed: Vampire flyers for each student; pen & paper for each student


Time: 10 minutes


A. Paired Personal Reflection


As the flier outlines, there were massive budget cuts to the public sector this year:

The budget cuts are typically presented in raw numbers, but we know these numbers have a real human cost. We want to examine how the budget cuts have hurt ourselves and our family members, friends and communities. Please get into pairs and discuss for five minutes how the budget cuts have impacted you. Think not only about cutbacks in public education, but about the whole range of cutbacks.  Students are not just students, but brothers and sisters, parents, grandchildren, members of the general community, and so on.


B. Group Discussion


Ask several learners to share what they discussed with the larger group. Highlight/reflect on common experiences. For example: “It seems like several people are worried about not being able to graduate because you can’t get the classes you need.” Or “Many families are concerned about how to care for their elders with the cuts to in home health care.


Activity 2: Why did this happen?


Overview: This section is designed to help learners think critically about how the budget cuts are portrayed in mainstream media and build an understanding of some of the policies that led to the recent cuts. There are a series of questions designed to get the conversation started and help learners share what they know about each question. There is also supporting information after each question that discussion leaders can use to help learners think more deeply about each question.


Materials needed: Vampire flyers


Time: 20 minutes


A. Discussion Guide


It seems that most people here have felt the budget cuts in a personal way. Now we want to build an understanding of how and why these cuts are happening.




1. What have we heard in the media or from politicians about why these budget cuts are happening?


Below is information that may help guide the conversation--


The myths: What we may have heard in the media or from politicians

The facts: What was missing from this story


California's budget crisis is because the state has been on a 'wild spending spree'


The independent California Budget Project has done a detailed analysis showing that increases in spending are overwhelmingly because of population growth and inflation.[2]


The crisis is caused by the current economic downturn


This is one contributing factor, but as an explanation it is simply not true. The structural deficit began years before the current recession.


The crisis is caused by waste, fraud and abuse.  While Governor Schwarzenegger was busy cutting the services of the poorest people in California, he wrote an opinion editorial in the LA Times suggesting that major factors in the crisis were mothers on welfare who were taking advantage, and home health aides chiseling on reimbursements (July 5, 2009).

The Governor is no doubt aware that these factors are of close to zero significance in the overall budget mess. His arguments are an example of barely veiled racist scapegoating—an effort to draw people’s anger away from himself to target the least powerful people in our society.

The crisis is caused by immigrants who are bringing down our education and health systems through soaking up public resources.  (Tip:  This point can trigger a long and complex discussion.  If you have only 30 or 60 minutes total, you may want to leave this out.)

Besides playing a crucial role in the economy, immigrants contribute more in taxes than they use.  For example, people without documents pay into Social Security, but don’t get Social Security when they get old. (Source: They Take Our Jobs! and 20 Other Myths about Immigration by Aviva Chomsky)


2. The Vampire flier outlines a two-step process called “strategic deficits” used to cut programming. Let’s break this down.


2a.What is a deficit?

Possible answers include: A deficit is when something is less than is expected or less than what is needed. Is like "falling short." To use a personal analogy, a deficit would occur if I only had $100 in my checking account and I wrote a check for $150. I would have a deficit of $50. When we talk about the California State budget deficit we are talking about there being less money taken in by the State of California than we need for programs and services. The state usually takes in money through taxation. So when there is a deficit we need to ask: 'what is happening with our taxes?'


2b. What is a "strategy"?

Possible answers include: A strategy is like a plan of action. Strategies are used to get a particular outcome or to reach a goal. For example, when people play chess they oftentimes use a strategy. The players may look at the pieces on the board and come up with a plan for how to win the game in the long term. Their strategy will help them decide what actions to take throughout the game. So strategy is about a plan of action to reach long-term goals.


2c. Now lets put these two words together. The flyer outlines a two-step plan called "strategic deficits" that is used to cut state programming. The concept of strategic deficits can be counter-intuitive because, for example, when I have a deficit in my checking account and bounce a check it is usually an accident... not a strategy. However, strategic deficits are used to serve a goal: cutting "undesirable" state programs that wealthy elites do not want to help pay for.


Here is text from an article that may help learners understand the origin and history of strategic deficits. It may be helpful to read this text aloud.


"“Strategic deficit” refers to a political technique used by President Ronald Reagan and his new right budget director, David Stockman to downsize the state. First, you give massive tax cuts which in succeeding years leads to huge budget deficits and borrowing.


The intent of the tax cuts isn’t to stimulate the economy as Reagan publicly claimed or even as payback for his political backers, as his critics accused.


The real intent of Reagan’s massive tax cuts was to create, in Stockman’s words, a "strategic deficit" that would give you an argument for cutting back the programs that weren't desired."


In Reagan’s case the huge deficit was used to cut back public housing, food stamps (vouchers used by the destitute in America to pay for food), and welfare benefits. The “strategic deficit” freed President Reagan from having to justify these cuts and their human cost. All he had to do was point to the deficit and explain that the programs were simply unaffordable."[3]


2d. Check for student/participant understanding of "strategic deficits" and clarify if necessary.


3. Specific policies that led to the crisis: Thirty years of drying up sources of public funding have led to the deficit we see today. The vampire flyer highlights three such policies that have been a part of this process: massive tax cuts to the richest individuals and corporations in California, the state’s refusal to tax oil as it is extracted from the ground, and propositions such as Prop 13. In the interest of time we will review Prop 13 today.


Proposition 13

Prop 13 is an initiative passed in 1978 through the leadership of Jarvis and Gann, a real estate and businessman team. Prop 13 resulted in a 57% reduction in property tax revenue during the first year and subsequent years, with the main winners being large corporations. In the six years between 1978 and 1984, property taxes plummeted 51 billion or 31% (Sears, David O. Tax Revolt, President and Fellows of Harvard College: 1982, page 246) One example:  General Motors in Fremont lowered its annual property tax from $3.8 million to $1.1 million (Self, Robert O. American Babylon: Race and the struggle for post war Oakland, Princeton University Press: 2005, page 325).


San Francisco Assessor Phil Ting estimates that Prop 13 is responsible for about a quarter of the state budget crisis.


Prop 13 was sold to the voters as the way to keep elderly residents in their houses—which was a real issue at that time when property values were soaring into the stratosphere.  Prop 13 was passed largely with the support of white homeowners in a spirit of backlash against the struggles of the Black Power and civil rights movements.


At the end of the day, the biggest impact of Prop 13 has been to “liberate” big bad corporations from paying their share of taxes that support vital public services.  ”Not only did Prop 13 help to accelerate a shift in the distribution of public resources away from older, poorer cities like Oakland, it subsidized and masked a larger social redistribution of the tax burden from corporate and business capital to [ordinary] people (Self, Robert O. American Babylon: Race and the struggle for post war Oakland, Princeton University Press: 2005, page 325).


NOTE: This concludes the 30-minute lesson plan. The next activities can be used in classrooms where there is more time.


Activity 3: Education versus Incarceration


Overview: If strategic deficits are the primary cause of the current budget crisis, a second cause of the crisis is the vast expansion of one of the largest prison systems in the world, the California Department of Corrections. This section is designed to support learners in examining the connection between prison expansion and de-funding of public education.


Materials needed: Vampire Flyer, Prisons' budget to trump colleges’ article:



Time: 15 minutes


A. Fact Review

Lets start by reviewing data about state spending on public higher education versus on prisons:

·      California spends $49,000 a year per prisoner

·      California spends approximately $4,600 a year per Cal State student

·      In 2011 $9.8 Billion was budgeted for Public Higher Education while…

·      $ 9.6 Billion was budgeted for state corrections alone.

·      California is spending nearly as much money on prisons ($8.7 billion, or 9.45 percent of its budget), as it does on all of higher education ($9.3 billion, or 10.1 percent of its budget)”.   

B. Discussion Guide


         1. What stands out to you about this information?

         2. Show learners the graph on the back of the vampire flyer.  What does this graph tell us about spending on education versus prisons in California?  You might add that:

In 2000/2001 California spent almost twice as much on higher education ($9.4 billion) as it did on corrections ($5.2 billion).

3. What interests are benefiting from this shift in spending from higher education to prisons and what communities/populations are being harmed from this shift in spending?


Possible answers include:

Interests who have benefited from this funding trend

Communities who have been harmed by this funding trend

Elites who were alarmed by the rapid pace of social change in the 1960s and 70s, who saw a need to clamp down on rebellious sectors such as African American and Latin@ young people. For example, a leading conservative named Samuel Huntington deplored the “excess of democracy” that appeared to be destabilizing the country.

Communities of color, in particular African-American and Latin@ who face disproportionate imprisonment rates.

Prison guards unions who gain increased job security and benefits from prison spending. There are 6000 prison guards making more than $100,000 a year.  The CCPOA is a top contributor to political campaigns.

Communities locked out of public education by the explosion in California’s prison budget. 

Politicians who get (re)elected in part due to a “tough on crime” stance that increases spending on corrections

Working class and poor youth who can’t afford to attend public higher education


         4. What do these facts tell us about California state priorities?


Activity 4: Taking Action: What can be done to stop the cutbacks?


Overview: Many people want to take action to stop the budget cuts, but may not have a vision for exactly what we are fighting for or know how to get involved. This discussion is designed to provide space for learners to vision what they would ideally want from a public education experience as well as to explore where action is being taken and how to get involved.


Materials needed: Vampire Flyer


Time: 15 minutes


A. Discussion Guide


   1. Imagine if California prioritized public education, health and social services above prisons and maximizing profits for corporations and wealthy individuals. If we flipped the statistics and spent $49,000 per student (like we do per prisoner) what might public education look like? How might this type of investment in education change the way our schools and campuses look? Our classrooms? Our instruction? Our programming? Our curricula?

   2. What actions are folks in this room taking or have folks heard about? What groups organizing around these issues are people in this class a part of?

   3. There are actions that people can take as well as groups folks can join listed at the end of the flyer. What groups or actions stood out to people and why?


Resources for more information


    * Help reform Prop 13: www.closetheloophole.com

    * Support AB 540, the California Dream Act, to make college affordable for immigrant high school learners

    * Support AB 462, the College Affordability Act, a tax increase for those making more than $1 million a year to support university education

    * Stop AB 900, a law which calls for building 53,000 new prison beds in California at $300,000 each-- get your organization to sign on to the signature campaign of Californians United for a Responsible Budget (www.curbprisonspending.org)

    * Support proposals by the California Budget Project for eliminating the 2/3 votes required to pass a budget and to increase taxes (http://www.cbp.org/)

    * Support the revenue proposals of the California Tax Reform Association (caltaxreform.org)

    * Educate yourself about taxation (cft.org "Talking Taxes")

    * Support the oil severance tax for post-secondary education, AB 656-Torrico.  (http://www.aroundthecapitol.com/Bills/AB_656/)

    * Read more on the internet:  California Tax Reform Association, California Budget Project, Teachers 4 Social Justice, Rethinking Schools, Education for Liberation Network, California Faculty Association (CSU), California Federation of Teachers (community colleges).

    * Read Unmaking the Public University by Chris Newfield (2008).

    * Watch the video www.speakout4edu.com






--The Vampire Flyer and Teachable Moment Lesson Plan and Discussion Guide were designed by faculty, staff , students and community organizers at San Francisco State and City College.  We are interested in your experiences and suggestions after using this Guide.  Contact us at vampireslayers09@gmail.com

[1] Electronic copies of that flyer and the other materials mentioned below are available at: http://sites.google.com/site/vampireslayerorg/ or can be obtained via email by contacting: vampireslayers09@gmail.com A second tool for “visual resistance” is the Vampire Poster (“California: #1 in prison spending; #48 in education spending”).  On this website you will also find the citations for all the facts given, and additional fact sheets and articles.

[2] Note: For more go to “Uncharted Waters: Navigating the Social and Economic Context of California’s Budget” at www.cbp.org

[3] This text comes from: http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/HL0508/S00023.htm

Don Brash and the “Strategic Deficit” Tuesday, 2 August 2005, 11:00 am Opinion: Alister Barry