Education Funding

Calif. Schools Brace for Another Year of Cutbacks

Schwarzenegger also signs into law controversial bills designed to reap economic-stimulus funds.
By Lesli A. Maxwell — January 14, 2010 5 min read
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California’s financial crisis will continue to put the squeeze on already strapped public schools this year as state lawmakers work to close a $20 billion deficit and debate Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s new budget proposal.

In his State of the State address earlier this month, Gov. Schwarzenegger, a Republican who will leave office at the end of this year due to term limits, vowed to spare K-12 and higher education programs that have been pummeled over the past two years by the state’s fiscal meltdown.

But after he unveiled the $83 billion spending plan for fiscal 2011 two days later on Jan. 8, school officials said the governor’s words didn’t match reality.

Though Mr. Schwarzenegger said his budget proposal meets the state’s Proposition 98 school funding guarantee, education officials said that would be the case only if the governor carries out a proposed change in the state’s revenue structure that would effectively lower the bar for what its obligation to K-12 schools and community colleges would otherwise be. The effect would add up to a roughly $2 billion hit to the K-12 budget in fiscal 2011, said Scott P. Plotkin, the executive director of the California School Boards Association.

“We are very disappointed that his rhetoric did not match his action,” Mr. Plotkin said. “He is manipulating the variables that go into the formula for [Proposition 98] so that the guarantee comes to $2 billion less than what it is this year. We are running out of words to describe how catastrophic this is.”

Amid such fiscal disarray, education leaders in the nation’s largest state were also working up to the last minute to prepare their application for federal Race to the Top funding.

In the same week that he released his budget, Gov. Schwarzenegger also signed into law a pair of bills crafted to make California a stronger contender for some of the $4 billion in grants, which are part of up to $100 billion in economic-stimulus funds for public education.

The measures—which include a controversial provision to allow a simple majority of parents to “trigger” the reconstitution or closure of low-performing schools—were roundly opposed by some of the state’s most influential education groups, including the California Teachers Association and the school boards association.

But the governor’s budget proposal—which includes a policy proposal to eliminate teacher seniority as a consideration when districts make decisions about layoffs—dominated educators’ attention

Tax Shift Questioned

Proposition 98, passed in 1988, is a minimum funding guarantee for K-12 education and community colleges that is tied to the size of the state’s general fund. Mr. Schwarzenegger is seeking to lower the guarantee in fiscal 2011 by replacing the statewide sales tax on gasoline, which helps generate general fund revenues that boost the minimum guarantee, with a higher excise tax on gasoline that does not go into the general fund.

The governor’s budget proposal calls for spending just over $36 billion on K-12 education in fiscal 2011, roughly 43 percent of California’s entire general fund.

The cumulative impact of $17 billion in spending cuts in the previous two years, coupled with still-rising costs and the planned tapering off of federal stimulus funds, means that many districts will still face decisions about laying off teachers and increasing class sizes, said one school finance expert.

“The net effect of [these proposals] is that districts are going to have to continue to tighten their belts, and there is a great deal of concern that 2010-2011 is going to be the toughest year yet,” said Mary Perry, the deputy director of EdSource, a nonprofit education research organization based in Mountain View, Calif. “If you are in a local district, your board is going to have to take a very hard look at how to make ends meet.”

In San Diego Unified, a district of 132,000 students including those enrolled in charter schools, officials managed to avoid laying off teachers earlier this year by offering early retirement to some 500 teachers, said Bernie Rhinerson, a spokesman for the district.

But the district must close a lingering $64 million gap in its $718 million budget, a task that would be exacerbated by the governor’s budget proposal, Mr. Rhinerson said. Layoffs may be necessary. And class sizes, already increased to 24 students in the early grades from 20, might rise even more.

“We’d be looking at another $35 million on top of that,” said Mr. Rhinerson. “If we are now talking about a $100 million gap, then everything will have to be on the table.”

‘A New Paradigm’

Under the state’s new education reform measures signed into law just in time for the Race to the Top competition, parents will now have the power to force school districts to address low-performing schools that their children attend. First proposed for use in Los Angeles Unified, California’s parent trigger could be a first-of-its-kind school reform. (“L.A. Gives Parents ‘Trigger’ to Restructure Schools,” Nov. 4, 2009.)

“It’s not just a new policy, it’s a new paradigm,” said Ben Austin, the executive director of the Parent Revolution, a pro-charter, Los Angeles-based parent advocacy group that pushed for the trigger in Los Angeles Unified late last year. “This simply gives parents real power to advocate for their own children.”

Mr. Austin said the only types of school overhaul that can be triggered under the new state law are the four school turnaround models outlined under the Race to the Top rules. He said that parents would be most likely to opt for either converting low-performing schools into charter schools or seeking to replace the schools’ principals along with at least 50 percent of their staff members.

The law will limit the parent trigger to 75 schools statewide, but Mr. Austin was optimistic that would be a temporary limitation.

“We are going to transform 75 failing schools in California,” he said, “and when we get to the 76th school, there’s just no scenario in which the legislature will say no to transforming it.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 20, 2010 edition of Education Week as Calif. Educators Say Governor’s Budget Belies Vows on K-14

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