One hundred years ago last month, the cry “women and children first” echoed on the decks of the ill-fated Titanic. A century later, the ship carrying California’s future is listing in the water. However, it seems that today no one is willing to make a sacrifice: It’s every man, woman, and child for himself or herself.
California was once the envy of the country — beautiful beaches, good jobs, a booming economy, and the promise of the best public education system, including top-notch, affordable state colleges and universities. However, the economic seas became rough in 2007 with the impact of the recession. In an effort to keep California afloat, our leaders in Sacramento — unable or unwilling to right the ship by raising revenue — scrambled for items to dump overboard. The value of education plummeted as other budget items were given priority, and education funding became the primary target for cuts, suffering a disproportionate loss of revenue. From 2007-08 to 2010-11, K-12 education funding sustained 54 percent of the loss of revenue, although it represented approximately 40 percent of the General Fund. In contrast, corrections sustained just a 4 percent loss, despite representing approximately 10 percent of the General Fund.
As the recession persists, the captain and crew – Gov. Brown and the legislators – decide what will be loaded into the lifeboats to survive, but there’s little evidence that the children are first. (Lucky for prisoners, federal law makes sure they are at the front of the line.) Instead, lawmakers and the governor are accusing each other of failing to save the children and the integrity of our state’s educational system Gov. Brown has proposed one solution to right the ship, but it requires the children to stay on board until the voters send help by passing his tax initiative. He seems to have overlooked the fact that children may go overboard before help can arrive — their schools must open months before the actual amount of education funding is determined.
The impact of the recession and the sinking of California are wreaking havoc on the schools, as has been documented this month by reports from both the Legislative Analyst’s Office and EdSource. School districts have been left scrambling, throwing items overboard or rearranging deck chairs in a futile attempt to balance their loads. Many districts are forced to borrow funds to keep schools open when the state sends IOUs, adding to their debt burden. Since 2008, more than 40,000 teachers, counselors, nurses, librarians, bus drivers, etc. have been lost, with an additional 20,000 teachers plus thousands more school employees currently in peril. While some education bargaining units are negotiating to save themselves and their students, others seem willing to let those in third class (lower seniority) and their schoolchildren sink with the ship to save their own skins.
Our schools need adequate funding to open their doors before the tax initiative-funded lifeboat can arrive. And the truth is that even if it passes, the initiative provides little more than current funding levels. Because of the uncertainty of the initiative’s passage, districts are compelled to budget with worst-case funding scenarios. As California continues to pitch in the seas of the recession, it is truly the children who will suffer the most severe, long-term damage. They’ll suffer larger classes, shorter school years, the loss of “less important” programs such as music and the arts, the disbanding of professional learning collaborations with the shuffling of remaining teachers, and so on, leaving 6.3 million schoolchildren with permanent gaps in their learning.
One hundred years ago, when the Titanic sank, the world was stunned and outraged that so many lives were lost, and new, preventative measures were instituted to save lives. Years later, we are watching another ship, the public school system in California, go under. Where are the safety measures today for the schoolchildren of our state? California was already 50th in the nation for student-to-teacher ratio in 2008, and that was before education funding suffered $20 billion in losses. How much more water will we allow our schools to take on before we step in to do something? Will we be able to tell the children of California that we did everything to save them, or will we sit by idly, shrug our shoulders, and point our finger at someone else and say that it was his/her fault? Unlike the Titanic, we can stop this disaster. We must call out “children first” to save them and the future of our state.
Tamara Hurley is a California native, a product of the state’s public education system, and a 24-year resident of San Diego. Trained as a scientist, she has spent the past eight years volunteering on behalf of her children’s public schools, from the classroom to PTO and PTA boards as well as on district, community, and school site committees and site governance teams. Tamara is a board member of Educate Our State, a statewide, nonprofit, parent-led, grassroots organization fighting for high-quality public K-12 education in California.
Governor Brown isn’t giving up on efforts to curtail Transitional Kindergarten (TK), despite being rebuffed by both the Senate and Assembly subcommittees dealing with education funding. The May Revision budget plan, released Monday, seeks to make TK a voluntary program and use the savings to restore proposed cuts to state-funded preschool.
The State Department of Finance estimates this plan would capture $132.2 million. Of that, however, $40.7 million would go to funding TK in the handful of districts that the department expects will continue or start a program, and to providing districts that lose students by opting out of TK with the mandatory one-time funding for declining enrollment. That leaves a net gain of $91.5 million.
“It’s robbing Peter to pay Paul,” said Deborah Kong of Preschool California, adding that the Department of Finance savings estimates are “very questionable.” Preschool California posted an interactive map on its website showing that even though about three dozen districts are holding off on implementation of TK for now, more than 200, including Los Angeles Unified, the state’s largest district, have indicated that they’re moving forward.
Still the law
Transitional Kindergarten was established under SB 1381, the Kindergarten Readiness Act of 2010, introduced by State Senator Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto). It raises the minimum age for starting kindergarten by moving up the entry date one month in each of the next three years, so by the 2014-15 school year children will have to be five years old by September 1 to enroll.
The bill also created the TK program for the estimated 125,000 children who turn five during that three-month window between September 2 and December 2, and who will no longer be eligible for kindergarten. Sen. Simitian says the way TK is funded, there’s no cost to the state for the first 13 years because all the children in the new program would have been in traditional kindergarten otherwise.
“It’s important for parents and school districts to remember that the Governor’s proposal is just a proposal,” said Sen. Simitian in a written statement yesterday. “Any changes to that law must be approved by the Legislature.”
Lawmakers have already spoken twice on the issue: once when they approved the bill two years ago, and again last month, when the budget subcommittees in both the Senate and Assembly rejected the governor’s proposal in his January budget plan to eliminate TK.
“The governor needs to understand Transitional Kindergarten is here to stay and that we stand firmly behind the Kindergarten Readiness Act,” said Assemblymember Susan Bonilla (D-Concord), chair of the Budget Subcommittee on Education that voted to protect TK.
When he first proposed eliminating TK in his January budget proposal, Gov. Brown argued that, given the budget deficit, this is not the time to create a new program. The state Legislative Analyst’s Office agreed, writing last month in a brief for lawmakers that the plan is “reasonable for budgetary purposes,” and that it “does not make sense to offer [an] additional year of public education to a select group of children at the expense of
funding existing K-12 services.”
Since January, however, the governor has changed the language on the trailer bill several times, and the most recent version could open TK to even more children. At the same time he proposed making it a voluntary program for school districts, Gov. Brown proposed that if those districts want to enroll children who will not turn five until sometime during the academic year when they’re admitted, the state will pay average daily attendance (ADA) funding for those students from the first day of school. Sen. Simitian’s office estimates that could potentially add another 250,000 four-year-olds to TK and cost the state tens of millions of dollars.
Preschool vs. Transitional Kindergarten
Back in January, when Gov. Brown first recommended ending TK completely, he was going to use the savings to help pay down the more than $10 billion in school deferrals from the state. The May Revision changes that and instead would redirect the $91.5 million to state-funded, part-day preschool. The January budget called for cutting the preschool reimbursement to providers by 10 percent, raising the financial eligibility requirements, requiring parents to work full-time instead of attending college or a job-training program, and eliminating full-day preschool starting in 2013.
Scott Moore of Preschool California said the idea that such a plan would save money is false for a number of reasons. One is that about half the 125,000 children who miss the cutoff for kindergarten and would go to TK instead are also eligible for state-funded preschool, so the 15,500 spots that would reopen in part-day preschool wouldn’t come close to accommodating the kids who need it. In addition, Moore says there are already more than 80,000 children on the waiting list for state-funded preschool.
“What the administration is trying to do is pit the TK community against the preschool community,” said Moore. “It’s sad that we’ve gotten to a moment where politics has really taken over what is sound policy.”
The political process will be different this time around. Since lawmakers have already rejected the governor’s proposal to eliminate Transitional Kindergarten, for all practical purposes, that recommendation is no longer a part of the 2012-13 budget plan. Restoring it isn’t just a matter of reconsidering that vote; it would require an entirely new proposal to end TK, and a complete turnaround by the same legislative committees that overwhelmingly killed the idea just two months ago.
A few Saturdays ago, my kids and I walked through a crowd of signature gatherers for ballot initiatives outside Trader Joe’s. Some of them all but tackled me as they pitched their proposals. All of them promised more money for education and a better future for my children. Unfortunately for the signature gatherers’ bottom line, I didn’t have time to stop. My children and their school had more immediate needs. We were on our way to a Dance-A-Thon, one of many “-thons” that California parents have organized to raise money for their schools.
It’s hard not to smile when you see a hundred kids dancing the Electric Slide. They’re so happy and innocent, they make you happy, too. But after an afternoon of dancing, they started getting tired and I started wondering, “Why are our children dancing non-stop for four hours to raise a couple of hundred bucks to offset the impact of the state budget deficit? How did we get into this mess and how are we going to get out of it?”
I probably wasn’t the only parent having those thoughts. I’m sure I wasn’t the only parent who’d been hit up that morning to support an education ballot initiative. The promise of the ballot initiatives is pretty tempting for public school parents who have seen the impact of budget cuts, dipped into their pockets to pay for after-school programs, and devoted an increasing amount of family time to fundraising. After a while, you’ll sign on to anything or support anyone who promises to stop the pain. That’s what Governor Brown is counting on when his tax initiative is up for a vote in November.
Still, like many Californians, the closer it gets to November, the more I’ll be thinking about that vote and what it means – just as I thought long and hard before voting in 2010 for Jerry Brown.
More than anything, I want to know whether the funding will benefit my children’s high-poverty school. I want to know that the money will be targeted to restore all the supports and services that have been eliminated over the last five years. I’d like to hear whether the governor has a positive vision for improving California’s education system and closing achievement and opportunity gaps. I want to know if he truly cares about making sure all kids have great schools and effective teachers. I want to hear whether he understands the hopes and dreams of the parents and youth living in a majority-minority state and an increasingly globalized world.
In all of these areas, I’m not getting many answers from our governor. When he ran in 2010, I read his education plan and believed his promises to use his long experience to bridge the partisan divide, fix California’s budget deficit, and end the use of budget gimmicks. Now, after seeing him fail to cross the partisan divide or fix the budget crisis, and watching him propose a set of budgets that include some of the worst gimmicks in state history, I’m not as trusting.
This lack of trust seems warranted even whenthe governor appears to be doing the right thing. For example, his weighted student formula (WSF) proposal would send education funding to school districts based on student need and fix longstanding inequities between rich and poor districts. This could be beneficial for high-need schools. Yet, the governor and his advisers have failed to include basic principles of financial transparency, accountability, and school-level authority on how the dollars are spent. In practice, this means that state dollars will flow to school districts with few assurances on how they will be spent at the school level or fix funding inequities between rich and poor schools. The governor won’t even fully implement the WSF model unless his ballot initiative passes and the state has paid off other funding owed to school districts.
And that brings me back to the signature gatherers. Supporters of the governor’s initiative portray it as a way to increase education funding. But when I try to figure out how this initiative is going to benefit my children’s school, I can’t tell. The only thing I have to go by is the governor’s budget, which projects over $5 billion in cuts to schools if I don’t vote for his initiative.
Now, the billions in cuts to schools terrify me, but a couple of things disturb me about this approach. First, the governor has failed to provide any positive reason or offer any educational vision that would move me, as a parent, to want to vote for his initiative. Instead, he is essentially telling me and every other parent in California, “I will cut your child’sschool funding if you don’t vote for my initiative.” Now, I’ve heard that the governor is delivering similar strong messages of pain to any major interest group that doesn’t back his initiative or shows interest in an alternative initiative being promoted by the philanthropist and civil rights activist Molly Munger. And maybe this will work for him. But telling me that you’re going to punish my children, their classmates, and our school if I don’t support your initiative doesn’t really work for me.
In contrast, Munger provides a real vision for educational improvement. Her proposal sends the money directly to schools with additional dollars to high-need students. It requires financial transparency and stakeholder involvement in decision-making at the school level. It asks for shared sacrifice from all taxpayers. And it can tell me exactly how much additional money our Oakland school will receive in the coming years. These are the very elements that Brown’s weighted student formula proposal and ballot initiative don’t include. For parents focused on their kids and schools and advocates focused on equity, it is an attractive approach. Now that it is going to be on the ballot in November, perhaps our governor should spend less time fighting it, and more time learning from it. That would be in his best interest and certainly in the best interests of the state he was elected to govern.
Arun Ramanathan is executive director of The Education Trust-West, a statewide education advocacy organization. He has served as a district administrator, research director, teacher, paraprofessional, and VISTA volunteer in California, New England, and Appalachia. He has a doctorate in educational administration and policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His wife is a teacher and reading specialist and they have a child in preschool and another in a Spanish immersion elementary school in Oakland Unified.
A new report out today examines internal and external stresses from budget cuts and economic contractions on the states’ 30 largest school districts. When handled singly, districts have been able to cope with larger classes and even a shorter school year. But combinations of shocks to the system are stretching schools’ ability to serve children who are also facing financial strains at home.
“Too often school budget cuts are viewed in isolation from one another, rather than looking at their cumulative effects,” says Louis Freedberg, executive director of EdSource, which publishedSchools Under Stress: Pressures Mount on California’s Largest Districts. “What is clear is that California schools are having to cope with multiple stresses and their impact is magnified by the experience of students from economically distressed households, which in turn can affect their academic performance.”
The 30 districts comprise 2 million students, about a third of the state, and range from Los Angeles Unified (667,000) and San Diego (132,000) to Twin Rivers and Chino Valley (32,000 each).
In surveying districts over nine months ending in March, EdSource found:
Childhood poverty: Rates of childhood poverty increased since 2007 in 26 of the 30 largest districts. Poverty rates, as defined by federal guidelines, approached 50 percent in districts hardest hit by the recession: Fresno (49 percent) and Stockton (46 percent). In San Bernardino City Unified, the childhood poverty rate rose 60 percent, to 43 percent from 2007-2008. Rising poverty, accompanied by increases in students qualifying for subsidized meals at school, can signal malnutrition and turbulence at home, affecting children’s ability to concentrate. Just when they need more services and adults to help children cope, school districts have fewer resources.
“Teachers will tell you that the needs that our students manifest when they don’t know if food is coming or know if they have a place to live in tomorrow are emotionally destabilizing. It is incredibly difficult for teachers dealing with that day in and day out,” says Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson.
Fewer summer programs: Most districts have cut back their summer programs drastically since the recession, compounding problems for students struggling to advance to the next grade or considering dropping out. Enrichment summer programs have all but disappeared. This year, Los Angeles Unified will restrict summer offerings to a handful of high schools. The exceptions among districts are Oakland, Fresno, and Santa Ana, which have cut elsewhere or creatively used other sources of money to expand summer programs.
Fewer instructional days: Twelve of the 30 districts have fewer than 180 instructional days, the norm until a few years ago. While three districts – Fontana, Long Beach, and San Jose – restored the week they had lost, three more – San Bernardino City, Moreno Valley, and Chino Valley – joined another half-dozen districts at 175 days. The report cited a Maryland study that found the passage rate in reading and math on a state test fell a half-percent for every unscheduled day off.
Larger classes: Of the 30 districts, only Stockton has an average class size of 20 or fewer, and only in kindergarten. Half of the districts now report more than 30 students per class in one or more elementary grades, while two (San Francisco and Los Angeles) have kept K-3 below 23. The Legislature began to relax the state’s class-size reduction rules three years ago; Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing to remove all limits (subject to local bargaining) next year. Studies looking at the relation of class size to academic performance have been mixed, but any teacher will say that classes of 30 (or more in high school) limit individual attention and increase incidents of disruption.
Fewer counselors: Students struggling with issues at home, whether joblessness, homelessness, or hunger, will bring their problems to school, which in the past has provided shelter from the storm. California already had the nation’s highest rate of counselors to students (1,810 to 1, 50 percent higher than the national average as of two years ago). There are on average 20 percent fewer counselors in 22 of 30 districts than pre-recession. High school students needing college advice are often on their own.
Teacher layoffs: Only a fraction of teachers who receive layoff notices in March lose their jobs by summer, but it has been a significant fraction. Of 96,000 teachers in the 30 districts in 2010-11, nearly 11,000 received notices; of those, 20 percent or 2,213 were laid off last year. This year, with uncertainty over the November tax initiative looming, Los Angeles alone issued 9,507 layoff notices in March and San Diego 1,655. What cannot be quantified is the impact on teacher and school morale of massive notices. But the uncertainty is distracting and dispiriting, with teachers focusing much of their attention on job searches.
To mitigate the impact of substantially cutting spending for K-12 schools, the Legislature agreed to temporarily let school districts decide how to spend money that had been earmarked for dozens of special programs, from adult education to teacher training. Now, as part of his plan to reform how education is funded, Gov. Brown is proposing to go a big step further and give local districts total and permanent flexibility over nearly all of the remaining categorical programs. He also wants to drop two dozen mandated programs, leaving districts the option of continuing to fund them without state reimbursement. Is spending flexibility over billions of dollars, ending state control over what the Legislature deemed important priorities, wise policy? Can districts be trusted to do right by children? And suppose they don’t – what then?
To explore this issue, we asked four leaders with different perspectives: Jill Wynns, president of the California School Boards Association; John Affeldt, managing partner of the nonprofit law firm Public Advocates; Bob Wells, executive director of the Association of California School Administrators; and Erin Gabel, Director of Government Affairs for State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson. What do you think? Please share your views.
Jill Wynns: Local boards better prepared for tough decisions
When local school board members are faced with the agonizing necessity of cutting programs because of the severe funding cuts in recent years, they begin by discussing the priorities of the community. That’s a nice way of saying people yelling at us from the podium, labor organizations and board members debating bad choices and worse choices. We have increased class size, laid off teachers and school employees, ended programs, and even shortened the school year, denying our students the instruction and support that they need.
Ever since Proposition 13 transferred taxing authority to Sacramento, the Legislature maintained state control during healthy economic times when there’s money to start new programs they can put their names on, and advocated for local control when it’s time to cut. Of course it is hard to make destructive cuts that deny jobs to constituents and services to children. However, that is what school board members often face, lately too often. That is the reality for California school boards in a post-Prop 13 world. Sacramento will spend every penny when there is money, but when it is time to cut, that is our job.
How do we deal with the slashing of funds for K-12 education? One of the few tools available is the new categorical flexibility to spend money that used to be designated for specific purposes and programs. Most school districts have transferred this money into their general funds to minimize the impact of cuts on the classroom. Some have urged that the flexibility be made permanent. Inevitably, there is growing advocacy for various programs to be reinstated and protected. The target of these efforts is the Legislature; the goal is the recategorizingof this funding.
After more than 30 years, why do we find it hard to trust local elected school board members to make thoughtful decisions? Who is better prepared to handle the tough choices that need to be made? Who knows the priorities of the local community better than those who spend their time talking to local parents, students, teachers, advocates, and citizens?
Organizations like the California and National School Boards Associations provide professional training for board members. Letting local boards make budget decisions will make it harder for advocates to influence the budget. Instead of making their case to a handful of legislators in a committee room in the Capitol, they will have to go to the affected communities. Because the school boards are elected by the citizens in those communities, we can trust them to make the tough decisions that are best for their schools. That is our job, and we do it, no matter how difficult.
Jill Wynns is the president of the California School Boards Association. She has been on the San Francisco Board of Education since 1993, longer than any other school board member in San Francisco history. Her areas of expertise include California school finance, urban education and governance, charter schools, school health programs, healthy school nutrition programs, and labor-management cooperation.
John Affeldt:Give districts targeted – not total – flexibility
The governor’s bold weighted-student funding proposal is an idea that the Legislature needs to take on this year to correct the indefensible inequities and irrationalities in our school finance system. But, in line with a key “local control” component of the governor’s plan, is California really ready to turn over to districts total flexibility in how they spend all their dollars? I think not. Not only would it be wise to transition more cautiously, but directing districts to employ a targeted flexibility to help the neediest students and their schools actually has the potential to increase the very local control the governor hopes to spur.
Public Advocates and the many community groups with whom we work are willing to embrace a historic shift away from the constraints of categorical spending designed (initially, at least) to protect the neediest students from local neglect. The flexibility that districts gain, however, should apply to which programs and strategies to pursue, not to which students to help. Modifying the funding system to focus more explicitly on directing gap-closing resources and attention to the neediest students makes sense – but obviously only if those students are actually guaranteed they will benefit from the new resources. Targeted flexibility to the neediest schools, not total flexibility, is the way to ensure that.
Sacramento has the constitutional and moral obligation to ensure that our neediest students receive equal access to a high-quality education, especially when local adult priorities may head in other directions. Especially when money becomes tight, funding in California seems naturally to flow away from low-income students and English learners. As well, on more than one occasion a largely white school board in a heavily Latino district has favored the majority white schools; other times, the issue has been a superintendent with an agenda focused elsewhere, such as on maximizing support to high performers; or a local union prioritizing salary increases across the district over serving the neediest schools; or an influential set of parents whose children are not among the neediest.
There are ways to target funds to the neediest schools without over-complexifying the system. A few modifications to how districts currently account for funds and report expenditures down to the site level, together with public hearing requirements when districts choose to deviate from spending weighted funds at the schools that “earned” them, would go a long way toward both ensuring weighted funds are spent on the neediest students and involving local communities in those decisions. Maintaining school site councils to oversee how weighted funds are spent at the school and incentivizing robust site-based budgeting as Twin Rivers employs could extend the governor’s notion of a new local control to every school site.
Now that would really be a profound democratic shift. Rather than only having local boards approve annual budgets, parents and students could engage in real ways on how public funds are best spent at their school and in their community.
John Affeldt is managing attorney at Public Advocates Inc., a nonprofit law firm and advocacy organization that challenges the systemic causes of poverty and racial discrimination by strengthening community voices in public policy. He is a leading voice on educational equity issues and has been recognized by California Lawyer Magazine as a California Attorney of the Year, The Recorder as an Attorney of the Year, and a Leading Plaintiff Lawyer in America by Lawdragon Magazine.
Bob Wells: State should recognize its role, then get out of the way
Our association, the Association of California School Administrators,has long argued that those closest to students – teachers, principals, parents, local school superintendents, and school boards – know best how to allocate resources to meet local students’ needs. The state’s role is to set the academic standards, adopt the assessment to measure how well students and schools are meeting the standards, provide the necessary funding, and then step out of the way so educators and students can focus on academic achievement.
It’s quite clear that aligning instruction with the new Common Core standards and streamlining academic assessment systems are high priorities for educators in this state. But the current lack of adequate funding and the threat of additional trigger cuts create massive uncertainties for local school districts.
While we won’t know for a few weeks what the governor’s May Revision budget proposal will hold for schools, we are certain about the following:
Additional funding for education is necessary in order to prevent deeper cuts to the educational program;
There are far too many categorical programs, created at the state level, dictating how school dollars should be allocated at the local level;
Unfunded and unnecessary state and federal mandates on school district spending must be eliminated.
Gov. Brown is a proponent of ensuring that local districts, teachers, principals, superintendents, and school boards have broad flexibility in determining how to allocate funding for their schools and students. He wants to eliminate categorical programs and abolish unnecessary mandates. We agree with his assertion that local school districts know best how to determine where resources should be allocated to improve learning.
The current school system has successfully served millions of students, but it also has failed millions, especially poor children and children of color. The time is long overdue for a broad discussion about measures necessary for equitable distribution of resources to meet all of our students’ needs.
Policy discussions about school funding flexibility must allow for timely debate. Determining how to streamline categorical programs, eliminate mandates, and allocate new resources must focus on what’s best for all students. Moreover, funding flexibility must be coupled with a robust accountability system to ensure all students are beneficiaries of fiscal reform.
Bob Wells has been executive director of the Association of California School Administrators since 1998. He has strengthened ACSA’s role as a leader on issues related to leadership coaching and teaching and learning and has sharpened its ability to influence public policy. He has been honored for his leadership by such entities as the American Association of Society Executives, California Council for Adult Education, California Latino Superintendents and Administrators, and the PTA.
Erin Gabel: Grave concern about unintended consequences
Regardless of the fiscal climate, it makes sense to consider whether lifting policy and funding restrictions would result in better outcomes for California’s students.
However, the administration’s budget proposal to replace many current education mandates with complete program flexibility coupled with a weighted student formula requires thoughtful consideration about the state’s fundamental role in public education and the outcomes and access we expect for all our students.
While Superintendent Torlakson appreciates the proposal’s aim to focus and simplify school funding, we have some grave concerns about the potential for unintended consequences when mandates are replaced by complete flexibility in the context of a fiscal crisis and a narrow accountability system.
There are four principles to consider when weighing the worth of state education mandates and categorical programs:
The state should provide maximum flexibility at the local level, while holding local educational agencies accountable for results. It makes sense to re-visit some of the detailed, prescriptive requirements associated with some mandates and categoricals to see if the state interest can be served while providing local flexibility.
The state has a fundamental responsibility to ensure that the basics exist uniformly in all schools, and it should retain mandates necessary to ensure equity across the state and accountability to voters. The mandates in this category include student health and safety protections, access to education for underserved populations, academic standards and data collection on academic performance, and transparency to voters.
Mandates that are retained should be fully funded.
Finally, we must realize that the elimination of any current mandate now funded through the Commission on State Mandates process that is popular at the local level, in this fiscal environment, is a budget cut. Any school district that does opt into continuing a previously mandated program would be forced to either cut these services or others if the state decides not to provide funding.
Many successful and important state mandates and categoricals are at risk in the administration’s proposal, including our only system for tracking the childhood obesity epidemic, our state’s class size reduction program, the high school science graduation requirement, and our system of educational supports to help English language learners acquire English proficiency.
The current “flexibility” experiment in the state budget has devastated those categoricals allowed to be flexible. Adult education, gifted student education, and the arts at the local level have been eliminated or slashed due to hard choices in these hard economic times. Short of an adequate accountability system focused on student outcomes and a better economic climate, these budget proposals may mean more systemic losses at the state and local level under a mask of flexibility.
The administration’s budget proposal continues an important discussion on how to best streamline and simplify school funding, and the governor should be applauded for his leadership and for providing a starting place for a crucial and timely public debate. It is critical that any changes to mandated programs and categoricals be carefully considered in light of the state’s interests in student educational outcomes, health, safety, and accountability, and taken in context with the current fiscal climate.
Erin Gabel is the Director of Government Affairs for State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and the California Department of Education, and is responsible for the Superintendent’s and the Department’s involvement in state and federal budget and legislative processes. She previously was then-Assemblymember Torlakson’s Legislative Director, consulting on education and health policy and general legislation. Erin was one of the founding staff members of the Partnership for Children and Youth, as their first Children Nutrition Project Director, and now serves on their advisory board.
Now that California school buses will be running for at least another year, why not let districts use them to make a little cash on the side – the side of the buses, that is.State Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff has introduced a bill to do just that. SB 1295 would allow school districts to sell advertising space on the outside of school buses and keep the revenues.
“California’s fiscal mismanagement has resulted in budgetary woes for our state’s public education system,” said Senator Huff in a news release. “My legislation provides a new and needed source of funding for our schools at no cost to taxpayers.”
There’s no solid estimate yet of how much money the ads could generate. Eric Thronson, who prepared the analysis of SB 1295 for the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, said one advertising company he checked with charges advertisers anywhere from $40 to more than $200 a month, and the company takes its cut from that.
Colorado was the trendsetter, approving bus ad regulations almost 20 years ago, and districts there have met with mixed success. Colorado Springs, the first district in the country to advertise on the outside of buses, takes in about $40,000 a year, but that’s out of a total budget around $225 million. Another Colorado district with 103 buses earned only about $3,000 a year and recently made some changes in the hopes of increasing its earnings to $10,000 a year.
The anti-tax group, CalTax, anticipates much higher revenues in California. In a report released earlier this month, the organization estimates that advertising on the outside of buses could raise $31 million in annual revenue for school districts.
Whether it’s on the high end or low, Sen. Huff cites the recent fiscal status report released by the State Department of Education showing that 127 school districts are in danger of not being able to pay their bills within the next two years as evidence that school districts need more freedom to raise money. “The senator’s feeling is that any amount of extra revenue is welcome, and it gives school districts freedom to use it how they want,” said Huff’s spokesman William Bird.
Rural Southern Humboldt Unified School District is ready to start moving on the ads. Last week, the school board passed a resolution in support of Huff’s bill and posted a sample letter on its website for parents and other residents to send to their local state senator. Last January, when the mid-year trigger cuts eliminated school bus service, the district sent two busloads of students and parents to Sacramento and successfully lobbied lawmakers to restore the funds.
“It’s an indication of how desperate rural districts are to maintain their transportation,” said school board member Barbara Lindsay. Humboldt is both tiny and huge. It has 780 students in kindergarten through 12th grade attending seven schools scattered around 773 square miles. As it is, some children spent two hours each way on the school bus.
“The rural school children are the ones who really need to go to school,” explained Lindsay. “A lot of our kids live so rurally that they really need a place a to go to socialize with kids their age.”
Too little for too much
California is already one of 26 states that expressly permits, or doesn’t disallow, advertising inside school buses. Districts can also sell space on the exterior of campus buildings, lunch tables, in hallways, and in yearbooks or other school-related publications, said Huff’s spokesman, Bird.
SB 1295 has also been amended since it was first introduced to set some parameters for size and content of the ads. Districts cannot display ads for the following:
Tobacco, alcohol, guns, or anything sexually explicit
Discriminatory content or nature
Implies an endorsement by the school district
Is political in nature or relates to a political activity, campaign or candidate
Is false, misleading, deceptive, or promotes an illegal activity or antisocial behavior
Additional rules set restrictions on where the ads can be placed and how big they can be so they don’t block the bus drivers’ line of sight, distract other drivers so much that they don’t see the flashing red lights on the bus, or pose any danger of falling off. But none of the arguments is swaying critics.
Campaign for a Commercial-free Childhood opposes the ads on moral grounds. “It’s terrible that schools today are struggling financially. But commercializing children’s education is not the answer,” says the group on its website. “Advertising on school buses will exploit a captive audience of students, turn schools into endorsers of products that may be harmful to children, and could make the buses less safe.”
So far, however, there is no research to show that buses with ads on them are more likely to be involved in accidents. But given the potential physical danger and manipulative impact on children, they’re simply not worth the income, argues the watchdog group Public Citizen.
Huff’s bill passed the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee and is scheduled for a hearing before the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday. A separate bill, AB 1448, by Assemblymember Warren Furutani would “prohibit the Legislature from reducing funding for home-to-school transportation below the amount established in the Budget Act of 2011.” That measure cleared the Assembly Education Committee last week with bipartisan support, and now heads to appropriations.
Barbara Lindsay, the school board member in Southern Humboldt Unified School District, is rooting for and working toward getting both bills through. Lindsay runs her family’s cattle ranch, and doesn’t want to have to leave the area because there’s no money for buses. “It’s still a really good place to raise kids,” she said, “if you can get them to school.”
One day after Democrats on the Senate Education Committee rejected his sweeping approach to getting rid of poorly performing and badly behaving teachers, Republican leader Bob Huff mentioned an often cited butmuch disputed quote of the late Albert Shanker in letting the Democrats have it.
“The Senate Education Committee’s actions exemplify the comments made by Albert Shanker, former head of the United Federation of Teachers, who stated, ‘When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of schoolchildren.’ Once again the Democrats on the committee have chosen to put the demands of some union bosses over the safety of our children,” Huff said in a press release. (Shanker’s wife, Edith, denies he ever made the statement.)UPDATE: I contacted Shaker’s biographer, Richard Kahlenberg, who wrote Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy. His email response regarding the authenticity of the quote: “I tried to track down the quotation for my biography of Al Shanker but I was unable to confirm it, so it may well be apocryphal.”
Democrats passed a much narrower bill, SB 1530, that pared away the due-process procedures for teachers being charged with offenses involving drugs, sex, and violence against children. Not that they got much love from union reps, who accused legislators from both parties of “grandstanding” on the issue.
Huff issued a chart showing that the Democrats’ bill wouldn’t alter the sometimes laborious dismissal procedures for teachers accused of a raft of other vile offenses that don’t fall into the new category of “serious and egregious” acts.
The odd thing is that, after the Democrats gutted an identical version of Huff’s bill in the Assembly this week, leaving in only two small reforms, the Republican co-sponsor of AB 2028 waxed poetic on the bipartisan achievement in a press release. “It was great to see Assembly Democrats today set politics aside and work with us to pass these vital reforms to get those who try to harm our kids out of the classroom,” said Assemblymember Cameron Smyth, R-Santa Clarita.
Not wanting to get caught in this dogfight, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy testified for both the Republican and Democratic versions.
Stepping up to community college plate
“I am a community college success story,” proudly proclaimed Jessie Ryan at a news conference Wednesday after the Senate Education Committee unanimously approved the Student Success Act. SB 1456 starts the process of implementing some of the 22 recommendations in the Student Success Task Force report, which was released late last year.
Ryan, the associate director of the Campaign for College Opportunity, grew up with a “struggling, single welfare mother,” and said community college was truly her “gateway to opportunity.” She was admittedly fortunate that her college helped her develop an education plan and held an orientation that put Ryan “on a path to success.”
SB 1456, by Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), chair of the Education Committee, calls on all the state’s 112 community colleges to provide all students with the type of support Ryan received. More than half of all community college students fail to receive an AA Degree, earn a certificate, or transfer to a four-year college within six years, and the figures for Latino and African American students are even worse.
But the big drivers in the bill for boosting success were tempered amid an outcry from students and the reality of state finances. Provisions requiring students to declare a goal and not to exceed a certain number of units in order to be eligible for Board of Governors (BOG) fee waivers will not take effect unless colleges have the resources to provide the needed support services, said Lowenthal. Just looking at one of those, counseling services is daunting. On average, there are 1900 students for each counselor.
The bill would create a new fund which repurposes the $50 million in the matriculation fund to provide colleges with some money to focus on education planning and advising, but it’s not nearly enough, and the chancellor’s office said they’re looking to schools to develop innovative programs to help students make good decisions about which classes to take.
“These reforms are about doing the most we can with what we have,” said Erik Skinner, Executive Vice Chancellor of programs. “The next step is to make the case for more investment.”
Gov. Brown’s effort to eliminate funding for home-to-school transportation at the time of the mid-year trigger cuts sparked legislation by Assemblyman Warren Furutani (D-Gardena) to introduce legislation protecting school bus service.
AB 1448 requires transportation funding for next year to be “at least equal to the appropriation provided in the budget for 2011-12.” The bill holds a special place for Los Angeles Unified, which, under a court-ordered desegregation plan must provide transportation.
Budget uncertainty marked many bills that came before the committees this week leading to one surprisingly stinging exchange between two lawmakers. During the debate on AB 1448, Assemblymember Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield), asked fellow education committee member Das Williams (D-Santa Barbara) why the democrats were trying to protect the school transportation funds when they were the ones who supported putting it in the trigger cuts when they approved the governor’s budget plan last year. Williams retorted almost before she could finish, noting that republicans forced their hand. “With all due respect,” said Williams, “that wouldn’t have happened if you had the courage to vote for taxes to support our education system.”
Click here for a list of education bills and their status
Two months after the release of the budget trailer bill, the Department of Finance yesterday was unable to provide specific details on Governor Brown’s sweeping proposal to change the way community colleges are funded.
At a hearing before the Senate’s budget subcommittee on education, community college officials also questioned the reasoning behind that proposal and others that were considered and rejected following a yearlong review by the Student Success Task Force on community colleges.
The governor has recommended eliminating the current model, which funds community colleges based on how many full-time equivalent students (FTES) are enrolled, and replacing it with a system built around how successful colleges are at meeting performance standards. Schools would receive a 4 percent annual increase in their base budget for reaching those goals.
But at Monday’s hearing, finance officials couldn’t say what the standards are or how they’ll be measured. “We don’t have those metrics,” Juliana Morozumi told the panel. When pressed for some examples by Senator Roderick Wright (D-Inglewood), she indicated that successful outcome would probably include degree completion and transfer rates.
In an uneasy exchange, Wright suggested that some colleges could be penalized under this system for having a large number of students who just take a couple of classes they need to improve their job skills. “That’s why I said we’re still working on it,” answered Morozumi.
The Legislative Analyst’s office and community college officials gave the governor a verbal pat on the back for raising the issue of accountability, but doubted this plan would fly. For starters, it would be a hard sell to legislators because it removes much of their authority for allocating resources to community colleges. It also leaves little time to develop what would probably be controversial accountability criteria and measurements by the time the final budget is approved. Additionally, the Student Success Task Force took a strong stand against performance-based funding.
“I appreciate the governor’s interest in reform and I’m hopeful he will buy into the reforms that we have suggested in the Student Success Task Force,” Chancellor Jack Scott said during a phone call last night. “To suddenly change the whole system to outcomes I think is frankly improbable.”
The Chancellor’s office already has a working group developing metrics for student success scorecards recommended by the task force to promote better accountability and transparency.
Budget is bigger priority
Most people at the hearing saw the discussion of how to fund community colleges as something of a distraction compared with the issue of how much funding the schools will receive.
In the past three years, community colleges have lost about $1 billion (not including de facto cuts from no statutory COLA increases), and there’s a chance that will go even higher before the current school year is out. Already in 2011-12, community colleges have taken more than half-a-million in reductions.
$400 million reduction in general fund apportionments
$102 million in mid-year trigger cuts
$149 million “February surprise” from lower than expected property taxes and student fee revenues (despite an increase in fees from $26 to $36 per unit)
There’s also a chance they’ll have to eat another $146 million this year if revenue from the dissolution of county redevelopment agencies is lower than the Administration’s estimate.
“I think this represents a very very major challenge for our districts and it’s possible that some would not be able to make it,” said Community College Vice Chancellor of Finance Dan Troy.
Colleges are hoping that Gov. Brown will give some indication of what the rest of this year looks like financially when he releases the May revise budget in about a month.
Next year is a white-knuckle unknown. If the Governor’s tax initiative passes, $218 million will go toward paying down the community college deferral. If it fails, the deferral stays and the colleges absorb an additional $30 million in programmatic cuts and, most likely, another mid-year trigger cut.
At a time when more people need postsecondary education to be prepared for the increasingly skilled requirements of decent-paying jobs, these reductions are having the opposite effect. Community Colleges have lost 400,000 students in four years, falling from a high of 2.8 million to 2.4 million today.
Students are being turned away at Ohlone College in Fremont, the chair of the Board of Trustees told the subcommittee. “The demand has grown over 44 percent in 15 years, said Greg Bonaccorsi. But funding cuts forced the school to scale back courses and now “students are being turned away,” said Bonaccorsi. “It violates the tenet of public education.”
The onus was on the attorney for education groups suing the state: convince a skeptical Superior Court judge that the governor and Legislature violated voters’ will and the minimum school funding requirement under Proposition 98 by diverting billions in tax revenue from the General Fund last year.
“There will be no such thing as a minimum guarantee if the state can manipulate it for political purposes,” attorney Deborah Caplan told San Francisco County Superior Court Judge Harold Kahn on Wednesday.
In a one-paragraph preliminary ruling the day before, Kahn wrote that nothing in the wording of Proposition 98 precluded the Legislature from shifting $5 billion in sales tax and vehicle license fee revenue to a separate account reimbursing counties for taking on some state responsibilities – even though the move shorted K-12 schools and community colleges about $2 billion. That would have been their share under Prop 98, had the $5 billion remained in the General Fund.
But Kahn did give Caplan the bulk of a 90-minute hearing, extending through the lunch hour Wednesday, to make her case, and, notwithstanding his vigorous questioning, left open the possibility that she may have changed his mind. Kahn is expected to issue his final ruling within 30 days.
The case, brought by the California School Boards Association, Association of California School Administrators, and three school districts, has significant potential implications – immediate and long-term – for Prop 98, the initiative that voters passed in 1988 requiring that roughly 40 percent of the General Fund go toward schools and community colleges. With a victory, the governor and Legislature could create special funds at will to ignore voters’ stated priorities by reducing the General Fund and guarantee for schools. And Brown could use a win in this case to support his call for $5 billion in cuts to K-12 schools and community colleges if his proposed tax initiative fails in November. In that case, Brown is proposing a different manipulation: shifting $2.4 billion in school construction bond payments from the non-Prop 98 portion of the General Fund into Prop 98 – essentially a school funding cut.
Obligation to suspend or ‘rebench’
The plaintiffs don’t dispute the governor’s and Legislature’s ability to fund schools less than the constitutional guarantee. But Prop 98 requires a two-thirds vote to do so and prescribes how the money owed to schools will be paid back.* In this case, the Legislature simply ignored the constitutional obligation to suspend Prop 98 (Republicans, jamming Democrats, made it clear they wouldn’t vote for suspension).
The plaintiffs also don’t deny that the governor and Legislature can shift money out of the General Fund or create special accounts. But ever since the passage of Prop 98, the Legislature has recalibrated the General Fund – “rebenching” in Prop 98 lingo – to make sure that Prop 98 wasn’t affected. This was the first time that reconfiguring wasn’t done, Caplan said.
The state’s position, which Kahn adopted in his ruling, was that rebenching is not in the language of Prop 98 and was not mentioned in the initiative’s ballot literature. If the Legislature has adopted rebenching by statute, it can undo it by statute if it chooses.
“Voters could have applied Proposition 98 to all revenues in the state, but they said only the General Fund,” Deputy State Attorney General Daniel Powell told the court. Shifting sales tax revenue to the counties for realignment of services was a valid purpose, not a manipulation, he said.
As Kahn asked Caplan, “If the voters or drafters of 98 wished to avoid evasions or manipulations of the General Fund, couldn’t they have put in language to state that? There is no such language there.”
But Caplan said what voters wanted was clear from the language of Prop 98 and the ballot arguments. Voters were promised that Prop 98 would take the politics out of financing decisions; the term minimum funding guarantee itself “is inconsistent with allowing the state to manipulate it at will.” Otherwise, there would be “no integrity” to the initiative, she said.
Furthermore, the Legislature demonstrated that it understood Prop 98’s intent in adopting rebenching as implementation legislation soon after voters passed the initiative. “The state has rebenched many times over the years and honored the principle repeatedly, sometimes to the state’s benefit,” Caplan said, but also to protect education funding levels.
Abe Hajela, an attorney with School Innovations & Advocacy who has been part of the plantiffs’ team, told me that it is unreasonable to expect voters to anticipate all efforts to undermine an initiative, then write them into the Constitution. That’s the purpose of implementation legislation.
The sales tax diversion was part of a deal that Brown cut with the California Teachers Association to pass the budget last year. But the statutory wording reflected CTA’s and legislators’ ambivalence. It said that passage of a tax initiative by November 2012 would make the sales tax shift to counties permanent but that schools would be made whole with the additional revenue. If the initiative failed, schools would be paid back what was diverted over four years.
But that was then. Brown is now reneging on that promise and is proposing to cut K-12 and community colleges further if the tax proposal fails. That’s all the more reason, the ed groups argue, that the constitutional guarantee must be protected.
* Update: It would be more accurate for me to say that the law prescribes how funding levels will eventually be restored if the Legislature suspends Prop 98. The dollars lost in a suspended year are not paid back. For the Legislative Analyst’s Prop 98 primer explaining this, go here.
It was a fine weekend for Jerry Brown. He should be elated with the first polling on his revised tax initiative. And the California Teachers Assn., a strong supporter of his first initiative, has come around to back the new version, too, and committed $9 million for the June and November elections. At least a piece of that’s expected to help Brown round up signatures to get the initiative on the ballot, though how much has yet to be disclosed.
Results of the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll of 1,500 registered voters show that 64 percent of voters back a temporary quarter-cent sales tax and higher income taxes on those making at least $250,000 – the compromise that Brown and the California Federation of Teachers agreed to earlier this month in merging their initiatives; 33 percent of those polled opposed it. Democrats were predictably for it (80-16) and Republicans agin (38-61); however, Brown did surprisingly well with independents, three-quarters of whom said they support the initiative, with 23 percent opposed.
Voters were told the money – $7 billion to $9 billion – would go toward public schools, community colleges, services for children and older adults, and local public safety, in line with the new initiative’s title (the School and Local Public Safety Protection Act of 2012) and summary. Brown can claim that because, while the revenue will go to the General Fund, a portion will go to K-12 and community colleges through Proposition 98, while $2 billion will support realignment, in which counties will permanently take responsibility for some social services and prisoners transferred to county jails.
The poll was taken in the days immediately after the deal between Brown and the CFT, but before the teachers union decided to stop collecting signatures for its Millionaires Tax, so pollsters asked about that one, too. CFT proposed a permanent, higher tax, though only for millionaires.
CFT’s initiative outpolled the hybrid tax plan 69-27, 5 percentage points higher. But business lobbies had already come out against CFT’s plan and may have waged war against it, so Brown’s tradeoff – sticking with a small sales tax and lowering the rates on the wealthy – could prove smart if business groups end up sitting on their hands.
“Jerry Brown may have pulled off a coup. By convincing the teachers to drop their initiative, he ends up with a compromise that still draws big levels of support,” Dan Schnur, director of the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll, said in a statement.
The strong poll results on the initiative would appear to contradict Californians’ ambivalence about paying any new taxes. Asked whether the state’s $9 billion deficit should be resolved through a combination of taxes and cuts, as Brown proposed, or just cuts, 49 percent said do both taxes and cuts, while 45 percent said cuts alone. Apparently, respondents feel OK about taxes as long as they’re not getting the bill. (A full 80 percent also favor a $1 a pack tax increase on cigarettes, which is on the June ballot.)
That sentiment is reflected in the apparent opposition to the other tax proposal that may be on the November ballot, proposed by civil rights attorney Molly Munger and backed by the state PTA. It would provide $11 billion to K-12 and early childhood education by increasing the income tax across the board, though most families earning less than $50,000 would pay a negligible increase. It polls the mirror image of Brown’s new tax, with 32 percent in favor, 64 percent against. (Munger and the PTA face the challenge of explaining to voters that the increase will apply to their net incomes, after deductions, not to their gross incomes.)
The endorsement of Brown’s merged initiative by CTA’s State Council of 800 delegates was expected, but critical nonetheless.
In a statement, CTA President Dean Vogel called the revised plan “a responsible and progressive plan that requires the wealthy pay their fair share in order to close the state budget deficit, restore funding to schools, colleges and essential public services and put California on the road to recovery.” He promised to work “with other labor unions and community groups to quickly qualify this initiative for the November ballot.” That implies that CTA will fork over some of the $4 million to $5 million it will take to get 1.2 million signatures by mid-May.
The State Council will meet again in June, at which point it could agree to additional spending on the November election.