As California lawmakers prepare to vote as early as tomorrow on a deal to close the state’s $26.3 billion budget gap, public schools are likely to be stung by a new, $5.9 billion spending cut that education leaders said would lead to widespread teacher layoffs, increased class sizes, and, in some districts, a shorter school year.
After weeks of partisan wrangling that at times centered around education spending, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and leaders in the state legislature struck an accord this week that avoided what educators had most feared: the suspension of Proposition 98, the voter-approved minimum-funding guarantee that ensures that roughly 40 percent of the state’s budget is directed to public schools.
Had lawmakers agreed to suspend Proposition 98—which Mr. Schwarzenegger, a Republican, had proposed as a way to save $3 billion—it would have lowered the base for school spending in future years. Though the budget agreement between the governor and the legislative leaders includes an accounting maneuver that will lower the base for the fiscal 2010 year, it also calls for restoring $11.2 billion to public schools when the economy turns around.
Still, the magnitude of cuts to K-12 spending would hit classrooms directly, by adding to the tally of potential teacher layoffs, which already number 17,000, according to the California Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union. The CTA launched an aggressive television advertising campaign against Gov. Schwarzenegger last week while his proposal to suspend Proposition 98 was still in play.
The $5.9 billion to be carved out of public schools comes on top of nearly $12 billion in earlier cuts to the state’s K-12 and community college systems. The agreement includes no tax increases, and, in addition to spending cuts to education and social services, relies heavily on accounting maneuvers, deferrals, and borrowing.
“It’s a cataclysmic cut to K-12,” said Dean E. Vogel, the vice president of the 340,000-member California Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association. “Classrooms around the state are going to be demonstrably different.”
Warnings for Future
Besides laying off teachers, school district leaders, if they haven’t already, would be forced to reduce or eliminate counselors, nurses, and librarians, Mr. Vogel said. Elective classes such as art, music, and physical education are also likely to disappear or be scaled back dramatically, he said.
Despite the steep cuts, the CTA is pushing for lawmakers to approve the agreement—which requires a two-thirds vote in both houses of the legislature.
“Our position is that we need to know where we are, so let’s get this done so districts will finally know what their final budgets are going to be,” said Mr. Vogel.
But the California Federation of Teachers, which represents 100,000 preschool, K-12, and community college teachers, as well as University of California lecturers, is lobbying lawmakers to reject the agreement.
“The Democrats are not living up to their ideals, the Republicans have a ‘no tax’ mantra, and no one is willing to do what’s necessary to raise revenue to properly fund schools,” said Marty Hittelman, the president of the cft, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.
Mr. Hittelman said his members are warning lawmakers that the cuts they make now to education will have long-lasting, negative impacts. The cft filed a lawsuit against the Schwarzenegger administration two months ago that seeks to recover the $12 billion in education funding cut earlier.
“If some 20,000 teachers, all in their first or second year of the career, are laid off, they are basically throwing out what was supposed to be a long-term investment in our schools,” he said. “Who knows if these people will ever come back to the profession. So they are not only destroying the present, they are destroying the future.”
While many details of the agreement and its impacts on K-12 remained murky, a few provisions were clear, according to a summary of cuts outlined by the California School Boards Association. For one, the agreement calls for giving district leaders authority to shorten the school year from 180 to 175 days as one way to save money, though doing so would require them to negotiate with employee unions.
It also would allow special education students to graduate from high school without having to pass the state’s exit exam, which could be a concession to an earlier push by some leading Democrats in the legislature that would have allowed all students to be exempt from passing the exam as a condition for graduation.
Jack O’Connell, the state’s superintendent of public instruction, has argued vigorously against any suspension of testing requirements.
The agreement also would relax the requirement that districts leaders purchase textbooks and other instructional materials within two years of their approval by the state board of education.
A version of this article appeared in the August 12, 2009 edition of Education Week