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You are here: Home Newsroom Our Ideas Themes in the News Archive May 2010

May 2010

May 7: “Flexibility” Helps Keep Schools Afloat at Cost of Valued Programs// May 14: More Than Meets the Eye// May 21: Flawed Assumptions Distort Education Funding Debate// May 28: Can Lawsuits Untangle School Funding?

“Flexibility” Helps Keep Schools Afloat at Cost of Valued Programs

  • 05-07-2010
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Themes in the News for the week of May 3-7, 2010


Last year to provide school districts with a way around their budget crisis, the California Legislature removed restrictions on approximately 40 mandated categorical programs, allowing districts to reallocate about $4.5 billion. On Tuesday, the Legislative Analyst’s Office released the results of a survey that reported how districts were shifting categorical money and changing services in light of this new flexibility (CLA survey).

What is “categorical aid”?

“Categorical aid is money from the state and federal governments targeted to particular programs, such as K–3 Class Size Reduction, and to students with special needs, such as Special Education—the largest state categorical program and a significant federal categorical. In addition to being aimed at certain programs or populations, categorical aid usually comes with restrictions on how the money can be spent. Title I (extra support for students who live in poverty) and Child Nutrition (school breakfast and lunch) are among the largest ongoing federal programs” (Ed-Data).

Predictably, most districts responding to the analyst’s office survey took advantage of not needing to earmark funds strictly for categorical programs (KPCC). By shuffling money around, they were able to balance budgets, retain pink-slipped employees and fund some programs for struggling students.

The impact to categorical programs was softened when many districts used federal stimulus money to backfill reductions to those programs. On average, districts said they spent two-thirds of their share of the $6 billion California received to prevent teacher layoffs and the remainder went to categorical programs and one-time purchases (CLA survey). If districts haven’t used them up already, when the stimulus funds run out in 2010-11, many worry that districts will face a “funding cliff” next year, unable to avoid widespread layoffs or cuts to categorical programs (California Watch).

Many districts shifted funds from adult education, professional development, gifted education and the arts, but others discontinued programs altogether. One-third of responding districts ended class-size reduction for high school freshmen and one-fifth cut the arts, counseling and adult English tutoring (CLA survey).

The LAO recommended freeing all $1.48 billion funds for class-size reduction for kindergarten through third grade, a priority statewide among many districts. Last year, the state eased restrictions on districts exceeding the 20-student classroom limits. Now, districts can receive 70 percent of the funding for classrooms with as many as 33 students. The LAO also recommended merging two separate programs—English Language Acquisition Program and the larger Economic Impact Aid.

The categorical-funding flexibility is a mixed bag. On one hand, it allows districts flexibilty to spend money on educational programs their local communities have prioritized. Plus, district budgets are not exacerbated by meeting costly state obligations. Many districts can and have taken advantage of greater flexibility to prevent layoffs.

On the other hand, the logic behind categorical programs has been that they are too important to be left entirely to local priorities and resources—especially when they benefit students who are poor or have greatest need for the resources. The survey didn’t assess the loss or harm to students and parents that results from reallocating categorical funds (KPCC). There are no guarantees that money originally intended to support English learners and low-income students will be spent on them (Educated Guess). A system that provides less and less to these students runs counter to equity principals and bipartisan political rhetoric. In a 2007 report, Gov. Schwarzenegger recommended a weighted funding formula that gave more money for poor students and those learning English. Some say now is the time to think about a fairer system (Educated Guess). Such a system should certainly remedy the flaws and complexity that plague the current categorical patchwork.


More Than Meets the Eye

  • 05-14-2010
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As Gov. Schwarzenegger announces his revised budget with deep cuts to essential services, a court ruling on Wednesday highlighted the impact of cuts on California’s public schools. Los Angeles Unified School District officials cannot lay off teachers at three of its lowest-performing middle schools to address its budget deficit, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ruled (Los Angeles Times). The class-action lawsuit was filed in February on behalf of the students at Samuel Gompers, Edwin Markham and John H. Liechty schools, alleging that the high number of layoffs was negatively impacting the students’ education.

As many as one third of the teachers were laid off last year at those campuses, serving mainly low-income, working-class and immigrant families. By contrast, schools in more affluent neighborhoods lost fewer than 15 percent of their teachers.(Reed vs. State, LA Weekly)

Following last year’s layoffs, the school could not recruit more experienced teachers at Gompers, Markham, and Liechty. As a consequence, many of the positions were filled by long-term substitutes. Sharail Reed, a Markham eighth-grader and plaintiff in the suit, said the substitute teachers babysat more than anything else. “It was a waste of time, like lunch in a classroom,” said Reed, who has yet to catch up on the work she missed (LA Weekly).

The governor unveiled today a revised budget with $20 billion in cuts. Nationwide, cuts like these are threatening thousands of teachers' jobs and the Obama Administration threw its support behind a Senate measure that would provide $23 billion to states to avoid massive lay-offs. (Washington Post).

There are a number of reasons for low-income schools being more susceptible to layoffs, but two factors seem to underlie this pattern. First, higher-income schools are generally better resourced and offer more desirable learning and teaching environments. Given the choice, LAUSD teachers tend to gravitate to high-income schools with better working conditions and away from low-income ones.

A second underlying factor relates to the networking of parents, administrators, and faculties at higher-income schools. Not only do these community members and school professionals have more leverage to make sure their schools are well maintained and staffed, they often engage in informal recruiting—ignoring or finding loopholes in traditional hiring practices.

This pattern of recruiting inexperienced teachers to staff lower-income schools is roughly a century old and consistent with broad social norms that can’t be blamed on teachers, their unions or seniority policies. The problem is worse and more visible during these times of budget shortfalls, but fundamentally not different. Speaking of the segregation of Mexican students in Los Angeles schools, a district official said in 1928, it was necessary to place a teacher in “the foreign, semi-foreign, or less convenient schools. After a few more years of satisfactory service, she may be placed in the more popular districts”(Chicano Education in the Era of Segregation).

In the early 2000s many teachers were hired with emergency credentials and assigned to low-income and difficult-to-staff schools. One result has been a negative spiral of less-qualified teaching staffs who are less capable of overcoming difficult school challenges. In turn, schools become less attractive to recruit highly-qualified teachers. Then, when layoffs are enacted, these schools are further impacted because so many of the staff are targeted for elimination.

Los Angeles Superintendent Ramon Cortines was pleased with the ruling, saying that officials should have the flexibility to look beyond seniority when it comes time to make difficult staffing decisions. “I think you need a mix of people in a school that means very new teachers as well as mid-career as well as seasoned,” he said (KTLA).

Teachers have taken the brunt of criticism for failing schools, including attacks on seniority and tenure privileges and protections (NPR), but union President A.J. Duffy said the district failed to enact its own policies to provide a good mix of teachers and a safe environment at those schools. The district needs to create “schools that are safe and secure and clean and healthy, with true administrative backup and support . . .” Duffy said (KPCC). “If [the three middle schools] had those things, there would be no problem with retaining teachers there.” This will be much harder to accomplish now that budget cuts have deteriorated conditions at many schools across the state (New American Media).

Flawed Assumptions Distort Education Funding Debate

  • 05-21-2010
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Themes in the News for the week of May 17-21, 2010

Attempting to close a $19.1 billion deficit, Gov. Schwarzenegger released his revised budget proposal last week. Two false assumptions are likely to undermine the debates and negotiations over money designated for California schools.

First, it is being implied or stated outright that the funding proposal will not further impact education. Second, many people don’t know or ignore the fact that support for education includes much more than what flows directly to schools.

The governor’s May revise stated that public education would be fully funded under Proposition 98 (Education Budget) (San Francisco Beyond Chron) (California Progress Report). What it failed to mention was that the Proposition 98 guarantee has dropped dramatically with falling state revenues leaving education funding far short of 2007-08 levels. Over the last two years, education has been slashed by $17 billion.

Also, instead of helping schools recover from prior devastating cuts, the governor’s budget does not restore funding that the state owes schools to cover cost-of-living adjustments and other obligations (Los Angeles Times) (San Francisco Beyond Chron).

But the education budget contains only one portion of cuts that impact students’ learning. One can’t rightfully debate the actual damage to education without considering cuts to other services for students and their families.

The proposal would cut state-subsidized childcare and completely eliminate CalWorks, a program that helps 1.3 million people, including 1 million children (Los Angeles Times) (California Progress Report). Cutting it would make California the only state lacking a welfare-to-work program (Los Angeles Times). Vital supports for children’s learning are at risk, including after-school programs, childcare, nutrition and many more services beyond the classroom walls.

Within the last year, other traditionally tax-averse states such as Arizona, Nevada and Oregon have raised revenues to support children. California has not raised taxes, in large part due to the legislative two-thirds majority required for such increases (San Francisco Beyond Chron). Even before the recession, California ranked near the bottom of all states in per-pupil spending and it now spends about $1,000 less per student than it did in 2007 (California Budget Bites).

Correcting false assumptions might be the first step toward saving California public schools. Political leaders and voters should know that the proposed budget provides fewer resources to educate students—not the same or more. And they should follow the trail of harm that begins with cuts to programs that are crucial to families and children—even if these funds are not a direct part of the school budgets.

Can Lawsuits Untangle School Funding?

  • 05-28-2010
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Themes in the News for the week of May 24-28, 2010

Maya Robles-Wong, along with about 60 other students, is suing the state of California for failing to meet its constitutional requirement to adequately and equitably fund public schools (San Francisco ChronicleEducation Week, New York Times blog). Other plaintiffs in Robles-Wong v. California, which was filed last Thursday in Alameda Superior Court, include nine school districts, the state PTA, and associations for school boards and administrators. 

Ten years ago, when Maya was a first-grader, another group of student-plaintiffs sued to gain necessary and equitable access to materials, facilities and qualified teachers. That suit, Williams v. California, was settled in 2005, allocating $1 billion in extra funding, including some targeting the lowest-performing schools. However, the adequacy and equity issues are far from resolved, prompting new lawsuits.

In 2005, Gov. Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders requested a set of independent studies on California’s system for funding public education. The “Getting Down to Facts” studies released in March 2007 found that the state’s education finance system was unnecessarily complex and not aligned to support performance standards. Several of the studies pointed to the need for California to dramatically increase funding in order to meet its educational goals.

The studies did not prompt immediate action from state leaders. And, the recession and budget crisis that began in 2008 has pushed further down the road any talk about education funding reform. Even long-term planning has been forestalled. Last year, Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoed AB 8, which would have created a bipartisan working group to explore a new education funding structure (Educated Guess).

The Robles-Wong suit, and another to be filed soon by Public Advocates, is reigniting the conversation on the misalignment of California’s education funding system. The state expects its students to meet some of the highest academic standards in the nation while simultaneously attending schools that are among the most poorly funded. “They haven’t provided us with what we need to succeed,” said Nigel Robinson, a Sacramento-area middle school student (KPCC).

Filed shortly after the governor released his revised budget, the lawsuit is not seeking a specified amount of money (Dan Walters/Sacramento Bee).  It asks for an overhaul of the system of school funding barriers that keeps California near the bottom of all states in its support for schools (Editorial/Sacramento Bee). According to the complaint, with adjustments made for cost-of-living, last year California was $2,856 below the national average in per-pupil spending, ranking 47th among all states. Among other provisions, the suit seeks changes in Proposition 98, a voter-approved initiative that provides a formula for minimum education spending.

State officials argue that education is a priority since it comprises more than 40 percent of the state’s budget, even in tough economic times when officials need to close a $19 billion budget gap this year (San Jose Mercury News). But the lawsuit claims that California has been underfunding its schools long before the current budget crisis (New York Times blog), and the irrational and broken funding system will continue to jeopardize students regardless of the state’s economic circumstances.

The lawsuit is an opportunity for stakeholders across the state, including students, to get involved in a public discussion about education—what is wanted, what is needed, and what people are willing to invest so that schools can receive support reliably and fairly.

Frank Pugh, president of California School Boards Association and a plaintiff in the suit, called the current system unreasonable and unfair: “Our goal is to…start the conversation about what is a proper, appropriate, dependable funding source for education, one that links expectations with resources." (San Francisco Chronicle)

Weekly Themes In The News

Each Friday “Themes in the News” explores one of the current week’s “breaking news” topics—selected by IDEA staff and its partners—for summary and reflection.   Hyperlinks of the news stories, which are cited, allow readers to explore the theme on their own.