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California Crisis Slams K-12 Hard

By Lesli A. Maxwell — June 08, 2009 6 min read
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California educators, already reeling from billions of dollars in spending cuts to public schools this year, are scrounging for even more ways to save money in the final weeks of the academic year as the state’s finances continue to melt down.

This time around, educators say they won’t be able to avoid direct hits to the classroom.

Class sizes will grow, if they haven’t already, even in the early grades. More teachers will be let go. Summer school programs will be canceled. New textbooks won’t be ordered. And, in some districts, the required 180 days of instruction may shrink by as much as seven days.

Cuts to education spending have been so deep in California that some school finance experts say schools are experiencing their first year-to-year reduction in per-pupil spending since the Great Depression.

The state already ranks near the bottom nationally in its per-pupil expenditures. That spending level is likely to plummet even more in the wake of a new round of proposed cuts to education and health and welfare programs that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger says are necessary to solve the latest budget crisis: a $24.3 billion deficit that could grow bigger.

State lawmakers began grappling with the latest batch of proposed cuts last week, as education advocates, students, and parents from around the state pleaded for schools to be spared this time. In February, K-12 and community colleges saw their aid under Proposition 98—a minimum school funding guarantee approved by California voters in 1988—slashed by $7.3 billion for the current year. K-12 spending this year still makes up 37 percent of California’s $91.4 billion overall budget.

Converging Pressures

“What we are seeing is a complete disintegration of the support system for kids in our schools that so far had been limited to outside the classroom, but is now going to hit the classroom pretty dramatically,” said Scott P. Plotkin, the executive director of the California School Boards Association. “We are talking about short-term disaster and long-term consequences.”

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Jack O’Connell, California’s superintendent of public instruction, described the situation in even more dire terms: “We are strangling public education.”

The cuts already made to public schools in the current fiscal year and for the next—and those that are still proposed—would dramatically undermine efforts to improve achievement, Mr. O’Connell said. As one example, he cited the Guadalupe Union School District in Santa Barbara County, where 6th grade classes will grow to 44 students this coming fall.

The recession-battered state and national economies, shrinking tax revenue, and last month’s overwhelming defeat of ballot initiatives designed by Gov. Schwarzenegger, a Republican, and the Democratic-led legislature to help balance the budget, have created the latest massive shortfall in California’s budget.

Just four months ago, the governor and lawmakers struck a deal to close a $40 billion gap. It depended, in part, on voters’ support of a package of six ballot measures that would have raised some taxes temporarily, placed a cap on spending, and allowed the state to borrow billions of dollars from the state lottery and other special funds.

All but one of the measures lost by ratios of nearly 2-to-1, including Proposition 1B, which would have restored $9.3 billion in funds that earlier were carved out of the state’s K-12 and community college budgets.

Since the defeat of the ballot measures, Gov. Schwarzenegger has laid out a plan to eliminate another $5.3 billion from schools’ budgets over the next 13 months.

“The depth and scope of this recession has forced the governor to put forth proposals that would have been unthinkable even a few months ago,” said H.D. Palmer, the spokesman for the California Department of Finance.

For the statewide teaching corps, the cuts are likely to bring widespread job losses, said David A. Sanchez, the president of the 340,000-member California Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association.

As of March 15, some 25,000 teachers had been issued pink slips warning that their jobs were in jeopardy. Roughly 5,000 of the layoffs were later rescinded, Mr. Sanchez said, but the failure of the ballot measures and the widening budget gap could mean those jobs will be back on the chopping block.

“And as things continue to get worse, we might see an additional 25,000 teachers getting pink slips by August 15,” Mr. Sanchez said. “It would be the worst job losses for teachers this state has ever seen.”

The cuts have also sparked litigation from the 120,000-member California Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, which filed a lawsuit against the state early last month that seeks to recover nearly $12 billion for education.

Stimulus Not Enough?

While the governor has said that money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that is slated for California’s public schools will reimburse districts for many of the state-level cuts, educators have been worried that the federal economic-stimulus aid will not be nearly enough.

For states to receive money from the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund—the largest chunk of stimulus money slated for education—they must assure federal officials that they will spend at least as much on K-12 in the 2010 fiscal year as they did in fiscal 2006, a requirement called “maintenance of effort.” Some educators, including Mr. O’Connell, had said they thought all the spending cuts would jeopardize California’s share.

Mr. Palmer said that federal education officials had notified the Schwarzenegger administration last week that California would receive all the money it is eligible for.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District—the state’s largest district, and the nation’s second-biggest, with roughly 700,000 students—budget cuts have caused strife in recent weeks as teachers rallied outside the district’s headquarters and high school students walked out of classes to protest teacher layoffs.

District officials expect to lay off as many as 2,300 teachers and other certified staff members before the start of the 2009-10 school year, said Megan Reilly, the district’s chief financial officer. If not for the roughly 1,000 teachers who accepted early-retirement packages from the district, that number would have been even higher, she said.

Some 600 central-office personnel will be let go at the end of the month. The district employs 88,000 people.

Two options that Los Angeles district leaders are weighing are unpaid furlough days and salary reductions, either of which would have to be negotiated with the unions that represent teachers and other employees.

Already, the district has increased class sizes in kindergarten through 3rd grade to 24 students, from 20. Late last month, district leaders decided to cancel most summer school programs that have traditionally served more than 200,000 students. Only high school students who still need to take core courses to graduate will be eligible for summer school, a cutback that will save about $34 million, Ms. Reilly said.

But the district must still find ways to save hundreds of millions more by the end of this month and in the new fiscal year that begins July 1. The district has an operating budget of roughly $6 billion.

“We’ve done what we can to minimize the pain to people, but we are running out of ways to shake the purse without really harming the classroom,” Ms. Reilly said.

A version of this article appeared in the June 10, 2009 edition of Education Week as California Crisis Slams K-12 Hard

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