California Considers Deep Education Cuts

Published March 1, 2009

California school officials and education reformers are wrestling with the specter of multibillion-dollar education budget cuts in 2009.

But as Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Democrat-controlled state legislature look for spending reductions to cover the budget shortfall, leading state educators are pleading for leniency. Early proposals floated by lawmakers call for a $2.5 billion, or 4 percent, reduction in education spending for California’s current budget year and in future years.

“We know education is going to take a hit, but the magnitude of the hit is too great,” said State Superintendent Jack O’Connell. “If you want to invest in the future, you invest in education.”

The Association of California School Administrators (ACSA) expressed similar sentiments in an official statement in January.

“[T]he level of mid-year education cuts currently under consideration will impose reductions so unthinkable that they will significantly undermine our ability to continue essential programs and will seriously threaten the fiscal stability of our districts,” the statement read.

Slashing Bureaucracy

California last year spent $58 billion on K-12 and community education. The $40 billion spent from the general fund on schools is greater than the total general fund budget of every other state except New York.

Lisa Snell, director of education policy at the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation, said classrooms and students could be spared entirely if lawmakers were willing to eliminate duplicative bureaucratic programs.

“They’re not willing to do that, because each program has its own stakeholders and political backers,” Snell said.

She noted the state has 30 different teacher training programs alone.

Alluding to a more drastic figure, O’Connell contends “you can’t find $6 billion of efficiencies in the [California public education] system.”

Adjusting Class Size

Advocacy groups that want more education funding typically warn of massive teacher layoffs to elicit popular support, Snell observed. She said that happens because instead of allowing modest across-the-board reductions in instructional pay, unions and school officials agree to lay off teachers with the least seniority. The National Education Association in 2006-07 ranked California as the state with the highest average teacher salary, at $63,640.

Instead of tackling teacher pay, Schwarzenegger has called for a rollback of funding for class size reduction programs.

Citing the multiyear Tennessee STAR program study completed in 1999, O’Connell said the proposed cutback could have a devastating effect on student learning in the early elementary grades. But Snell highlighted a 2002 RAND study that found no connection between class size reduction and improved academic achievement.

Snell said the governor is right to propose ending the rigid mandates that accompany state categorical funding for class size reduction, because those mandates create irrational incentives to hire excess teachers.

“They always use the extreme argument that we’ll have 60 kids in one classroom,” Snell said. “But even if they brought up the flexibility to between 19 and 25 [per classroom] it would make a huge difference in budgeting.”

ACSA spokeswoman Julie White agreed. “Abandon those mandates, and let school districts decide what those priorities are,” she said.

Cutting the Calendar

Another cost-saving measure the governor’s office has proposed is to shorten the school year from 180 days to 175.

White says the idea is unworkable because it would conflict with existing union contracts in many school districts. “You can’t do that,” she said.

O’Connell says the policy would harm students. “To deny students five days of instructional opportunities is lost forever,” he said.

The state superintendent said shortening the school year would put California behind 42 other states and most industrialized nations.

But Vicki Murray, a senior education fellow at the Pacific Research Institute, said the United States actually is better than its peers in terms of annual instruction hours. “The U.S. typically has a longer school day than its international counterparts,” she said.

Expanding Choice

Murray says the recessionary strain on the budget calls for a more consumer-friendly approach. After a 2008 legislative session in which four school choice bills were introduced, she said up to nine could be brought forward in 2009.

“A growing number of California lawmakers consider parental choice morally and fiscally responsible public policy,” Murray said.

Though O’Connell dismissed the idea of education vouchers or tuition tax credits, Snell said California would be wise at least to expand freedom in the public charter school sphere.

“[Charter schools] focus all their money on the classroom and have very few program costs,” Snell said, citing the successful Green Dot program as an example.

Seeking Federal Help

O’Connell said his department suggested deferring maintenance projects and textbook and computer purchases to meet a significant share of the proposed cuts. But the state superintendent also hopes federal intervention will help fund class size reduction and technological infrastructure.

“The Obama administration is saying they can help,” O’Connell said.

Murray believes that would be counterproductive and would send the wrong message.

“Having taxpayers across the country pay for California’s mismanagement hardly seems fair, especially in these tough economic times,” Murray said. “I would prefer California adopt education policies with a proven track record of success.”

Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, Colorado.

For more information …

CSR Research Consortium, California class size reduction reform studies: