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State's schools, once top in nation, now rank at bottom as budget cuts ravage K-12 and higher education

By Miriam Raftery

December 23, 2009 (Sacramento) – The Obama administration has challenged states to compete for federal “Race to the Top” (RTT) education funds aimed at improving under-performing K-12 schools. California is eligible for $300-$700 million of those funds—provided the Legislature and Governor can agree on changing state laws by January 19, 2010 to qualify for the funding.


The State Senate passed a measure that has been stalled in committee in the Assembly, which has put forward its own version of an RTT bill. State Race to the Top applications will be judged based on a 500-point scale, with points awarded in the categories of State Success Factors, Standards and Assessments, Great Teachers and Leaders, Turning Around Lowest Achieving Schools, and a "General" category that includes accountability for charter schools.

The program has drawn praise from some and criticism from others. Assemblyman Mark Wyland (R-Escondido) called RTT “No Child Left Behind on steroids” in an education forum he chaired in San Diego last week. He faulted teachers’ unions for opposing the Senate measure and blamed California’s education funding gap on unfunded government mandates.

The California Teachers Association supports the Assembly version. “The Assembly bill will put California in the best position to qualify for the federal funding program," said CTA President David A. Sanchez in a statement posted on the CTA website. "We commend Assembly Speaker Karen Bass for working with parents and educators to draft legislation that will build upon California’s already rigorous education standards and accountability system, and create a coherent system of school reform."

CTA contends that ABx5 8 by Assembly member Julia Brownley improves the state's assessment and testing system by using “multiple measures of student achievement, shrinking the achievement gap, as well as improving instruction and school leadership. The bill also offers greater fiscal and performance accountability for California's charter schools.” Legislation crafted before the final Race to the Top guidelines were released is incomplete and fails to provide adequate legislative guidance, CTA contends.

Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) said California’s effort to secure race-to-the-top funds is “on track” in an editorial published December 18 in the San Jose Mercury News. “Minority students would particularly benefit from two provisions the Assembly has added to the discussions,” she noted. One of those provisions would make it easier to “fire bad teachers and replace up to 50 percent of teachers in the lowest-performing schools,” a provision not favored by teachers’ unions. The other provision would steer more money to local districts; by contrast Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger wants the state to keep half.

Other controversial issues at stake include removing the state cap on the number of state-chartered schools allowed, creating national standards to compare performance of school districts, and allowing parents to place students in schools outside their school district of residency.

Billions of dollars in state budget cuts for education have decimated California schools, which once ranked among the top in the nation. Statewide, 2,800 schools are failing by federal achievement standards. According to the California Teachers Federation, California fell to 47th in the nation in per pupil spending earlier this year; some estimate our state will rank dead last in the nation once recent budget cuts take effect. We also rank next-to-last in student-teacher ratios, with classrooms overcrowded at many schools.

Higher education has also been severely impacted. While the federal dollars target K-12 education, receiving those funds could free up other resources to stem the budgetary bleeding at state colleges and universities.

Back in 1960, under Governor Pat Brown, reforms were put in place that enabled more than half of all high school students in California to attend a college or university. Today only a little over a third of all high-school students (36.3%) go on to college, lower than the national average of 40%.

In the 1960s, students in the top 12.5% of their high school graduating class were guaranteed admission to the University of California system and those in the top third were guaranteed entry to state colleges. Community colleges were free to all. But those reforms have fallen by the wayside.

U.C. fees have increased 300% in the past decade and 30% in the past month. Costs at CSU have skyrocketed and admission policies tightened to exclude a growing number of students. SDSU just eliminated local student guaranteed admission policies. According to the California Student Aid Commission, about 118,000 students will have CAL-Grants terminated.

Community Colleges fees have increased and resources are spread thin. At Cuyamaca College, the state is only providing funds for 7,000 of the school’s 10,000 students, according to executive dean Henri Migala. Locally, education resources are being further strained by the growing number of refugees in East County (300-400 families a month being settled here by the federal government, primarily from war-torn Iraq).

Sile some school districts have implemented innovative programs to stem the budget gap (such as the Grossmont Union High School District’s successful efforts to reduce truancy and recoup state ADA funds for average daily attendance). But other districts face a bleaker outlet. San Diego Unified School District president Richard Barrera warns that if the state implements 30% cuts as threatened, the district would face a “crisis” that would force school closures, larger class sizes, and elimination of arts and music programs.

Even if California succeeds in attracting federal race-to-the-top funds, it will still fail to address the systemic budgeting problem that has left schools facing budget gaps year after year.


Doug Deane, chair of the East County Chamber of Commerce’s Education Committee, observed that Proposition 13 removed property tax dollars that formerly funded California’s public schools—the primary source of funding for education in most other states. He voiced concern that public education in California is "doomed" unless both parties in the Legislature can work together to find solutions.  Deane, who does not favor raising taxes, believes it is unlikely that legislators or taxpayers would support overturning Proposition 13, the initiatitive which froze property tax levels on existing homeowners more than 25 years ago. 


Nor is legislative gridlock likely to change as long as there is a 2/3 majority requirement to pass budgets in an era when Republicans have staunchly opposed any budget with new taxes to raise revenues.


Deane praised efforts of educators in the face of declining budgets.  To help make up a portion of lost revenues for education, he also suggested that voters carefully examine school bond measures and support those bond measures that voters deem worthwhile. 


Editor's note:  An earlier version of this story contained remarks by Deane that have since been revised at his request to more accurately reflect his views.

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Same old excuses

It always comes down to the Prop. 13 phony argument. The average home in California turns every 5 years. They are collecting more per capita property taxes than ever and have since 3 years after Prop. 13 went in effect. It's what they are doing with them that's the problem. Putting them in the States general fund and spending it on the left wing, socialist, free to be you and me, legislatures pet projects. The voters of California keep re-electing the same left wing socialist bunch and deserve the chaos they have brought.

The union controlled schools have been pumping huge amounts into education for decades without effect. When I was in the 7th grade in California schools NO ONE FLUNKED THE STANDARD TESTS! So are the tests harder or the no parents involved, latch key kids, not as educated by the system. I bet on the latter.