By Marsha Sutton
Continuing with last week’s theme, more briefs have accumulated that are educationally noteworthy, mostly having to do with the frightful decimation of the education budget in Sacramento.
Cuts for education
A preliminary list of budget cuts to be considered if Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax extensions fail was recently prepared the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office. Those cuts affecting education were compiled and distributed by School Services of California, a prominent education advocacy organization.
This list includes a number of K-12 education programs, including: eliminate the class-size reduction incentive program for grades kindergarten through third (saving nearly $1.3 billion), reduce general-purpose funding by 2.2 percent (saving over $800 million), and end state support for home-to-school transportation (saving $500 million).
The LAO also lists possible cuts for community colleges and the two state university systems. Items include reducing personnel costs, raising tuition, decreasing equipment funding, lowering enrollment, and limiting grant eligibility.
“While the LAO’s list provides an interesting basis for discussion, we do not regard it as a proposal or even a speculative prediction of things to come,” states School Services of California. Rather, SSC said the list provides a description of possible cuts that California residents might expect under a worst-case scenario.
Nevertheless, the list is a sobering reminder that hard times for education are far from over.
Letting go of class-size reduction
The LAO, according to School Services of California, surveyed school districts throughout the state and found that, despite gigantic state subsidies, K-3 class sizes on average have increased from 20 or 21 in 2008-2009 to about 25 students per class in 2010-2011. Class sizes in other grades have grown from 28 to 31 students over the same period of time.
Even though the state pays a huge chunk of money to districts for the K-3 CSR program, it still doesn’t cover costs. As a result, many districts are choosing to forgo the state CSR money and increase class sizes to save dollars, which means needing fewer teachers.
In a story last fall by The Hechinger Report, an independently funded nonprofit news organization affiliated with Teachers College at Columbia University, statistics indicate that “school personnel were hired at twice the rate that student enrollment grew from 1999 to 2007.”
According to the report, experts are predicting that “the struggling economy is expected to reverse a decades-long trend toward smaller classes.”
California’s class-size reduction program, now the largest in the nation, was launched in 1996 at a cost of $20 billion. But research shows “no gains in achievement attributable to smaller classes,” the report stated.
Nevertheless, the program remains enormously popular. Parents “intuitively believe that small class sizes will allow more individual attention,” said Stanford University emeritus professor Michael Kirst in the report.
In the Del Mar Union School District, a teachers’ contract clause (Article 18) guarantees that class sizes in kindergarten through third grade cannot exceed 20 students, without penalty. For each student in excess of 20, the district must pay the teacher $20 per day per student for a maximum of 15 days, at which time other relief measures can be implemented.
But, according to the district, if the state reduces or eliminates funding for the K-3 CSR program, “the association and the district agree to re-negotiate the terms of Article 18 in a timely manner.”
The DMUSD is one of the only districts with class-size restrictions in its labor contract.
Prediction: K-3 class-size reduction funding will disappear – if not next year, then soon after. It is by far the single most expensive program in education in the state today, and its merits – apart from the feel-good sense that smaller classes are better – have yet to be proven through research.
Meanwhile, teachers, counselors, librarians, nurses, custodians and technicians are being released in all grades up through high school, while an enormous amount of money is being spent on a program with dubious benefits. There is a fairness issue at stake here, when so much funding in hard times excludes grades 4-12 and is allocated solely to support a questionable program for K-3.
The state should stop treating this program like a sacred cow. It’s time to let it go, and redistribute the money where it can be better spent.
Shorter school year
Just as troubling as firing staff and letting educational facilities deteriorate is the move to shorten the school year to save money.
Because salaries and benefits constitute 80 to 90 percent of a typical school district’s budget, a shortened school year cuts costs. To help districts squeezed for money (and name one district that isn’t), the state now allows districts to reduce the school year by up to five days, which has become a viable option.
The LAO, in its recent survey of the state’s school districts, found that about 20 percent of districts reduced the school year in 2009-2010, while almost 60 percent shortened the year in 2010-2011.
“More districts are taking advantage of the flexibility to reduce their school year,” reports School Services of California.
It may help the bottom line, but it surely doesn’t help students. What next? When will the state allow cash-strapped districts to consider cutting 10 days? Three weeks? A month?
At what point do draconian budget cuts move people to demand, really demand, that state legislators fix this broken system and show they actually care about children’s education?
According to a story in the March 3 Los Angeles Times, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said the idea that “somehow reducing the school days or school year or instructional time is a smart way to reduce spending – I cannot support that.”
For the state to allow districts to shorten the school year is a shameful travesty that should generate forceful outrage among parents and the education community. Instead, what we’re hearing is relief from administrators looking for any means at hand to cut costs. And that too is shameful, that educators would even remotely consider that shortening the school year is acceptable.
More cuts for Basic Aid?
The Legislative Analyst’s Office recently offered up another “helpful” suggestion to the state’s budgeteers that affects Basic Aid school districts exclusively.
Gov. Brown is proposing to cut over $700 million from the $2 billion childcare and preschool budget by reducing the number of spaces available, raising eligibility requirements, and eliminating childcare services for older students.
To plug part of this hole, the LAO is suggesting that the state withdraw funding for Basic Aid districts’ categorical programs, which experts estimate could be as high as $800 per student.
Basic Aid districts – which include Del Mar, Solana Beach, Rancho Santa Fe and San Dieguito – are funded primarily by local property tax revenue, while the other “Revenue Limit” districts are also funded partially by property taxes but are backfilled by the state to reach an acceptable level of funding.
In addition, all districts are provided with state funding for specific “categorical” programs.
Basic Aid districts, which account for about 10 percent of the state’s total, are allowed to keep their excess local tax revenue – or at least they were until two years ago when these districts agreed to give back to the state their “Fair Share” of money.
This Fair Share was calculated to be in direct proportion to the cuts absorbed by the other 90 percent of school districts decimated by state cutbacks. The idea was that the pain should be equally distributed, and Basic Aid districts agreed that it was their moral duty to return money to the state, to be fair and equitable.
But the LAO’s proposal would mean that Basic Aid districts would be contributing even more as a percentage of their budgets than the non-Basic Aid districts.
“I do think it is possible that Basic Aid districts may be required to take additional cuts, but cannot ‘crystal ball’ final resolution,” said Leslie Fausset, superintendent of the Solana Beach School District, in an email.
Jim Peabody, Del Mar Union School District superintendent, agreed with Fausset’s assessment, using a similar forecasting symbol. “I think this will probably be approved, but my crystal ball has not been very good in the past,” he said. “I understand that they’re trying to uncover any piece of funding they can find.”
Fair Share, Peabody said, was intended to equalize the pain. “That was the theory,” he said.
Fausset said the LAO proposal would mean a larger percentage cut for Basic Aid districts than Revenue Limit districts. “But I don’t know how likely it is to actually come to pass,” she said.
Peabody said districts are still trying to get clarification and that more information should be available later this week. “I think this time they’re really serious about trying to get a solution to the budget sooner rather than later,” he said, of state legislators.
Some Basic Aid districts have additional challenges, because many are experiencing significant property tax decreases, Fausset said.
“It’s a very difficult time for everyone right now, which is an understatement of the seriousness of where we are,” she said. “I truly worry about this generation of students with all the turmoil and impacts.”
Marsha Sutton can be reached at: SuttComm@san.rr.com.