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Education: A fix for broken school funding

Part 1 of a series on the state of education in the Santa Clarita Valley

Posted: October 30, 2010 7:16 p.m.
Updated: October 31, 2010 4:30 a.m.
 

Editor’s note: Today The Signal begins a series of special reports on the state of public education in the Santa Clarita Valley. These special reports will run Sundays through November into December. This first in the series examines California education financing.

The toll of California’s $17 billion slash in state public education funding over two years’ time has become obvious:

Students are crammed into classrooms.

Summer-school programs meant to give students a second chance are being trimmed or eliminated.

More than 20,000 teachers across California received pink slips.

Janitors, office assistants and aides have been let go.

Those who are still employed must take unpaid days off.

And school districts are backed into a corner as administrators face few choices in making multimillion-dollar cuts.

“We made a decision,” said Castaic Union School District Superintendent James Gibson: “Do I fix buildings or teach children?”
A moving target

Despite constitutional obligations to fund public education, school districts are constantly at the mercy of the state when it comes to how much money they will — or won’t — receive.

“You never know what any given year might look like,” Gibson said of his district’s budgets.

This year’s budget crisis left California legislators with a nearly $20 billion budget shortfall, leaving educators across the state wondering how much their budgets will be cut again.

“Teachers and staff not getting laid off means that students have the best opportunity,” Gibson said.

“If those people are gone, your job is harder. You may have saved some money, but the quality of your work and life is not the same.”

Brief rescue funds have come and gone.

The stabilization funding was meant to help school districts deal with the massive funding cutbacks.

And this year, school districts are poised to receive some $10 million from a federal jobs bill meant to restore and save education jobs. Districts are expected to get the money some time this school year.

But the one-time money soon fades, and educators find themselves again at a funding cliff.
47th in spending

California is frequently criticized for its low ranking in terms of money spent per student at state-funded public schools.

The state ranks 47th, spending $7,571 per student, according to various studies of 2006-07 spending.

“It’s consistently among the worst in the nation,” said Debbie Look, director of legislation for the California State Parent-Teachers Association.

That figure is $2,400 below the national average of $9,963. At the top of the list for per-student spending is Vermont, generating $15,139 a student.

“We’ve got a very constrained tax system in the state,” said Lawrence Picus, professor at the USC Rossier School of Education.

“The state essentially controls the amount of money that the schools have.”

“If the state’s budget doesn’t have enough money in it, everything gets cut,” Picus said.

That cycle of education cuts repeats every time California sinks into another recession.

States like Wyoming spend about $14,000 per student. Class sizes are kept to about 16 pupils; students have access to tutors and counselors; youngsters who are behind regularly attend summer school or afterschool programs, Picus said.

“It’s a much more richly funded system,” Picus said.

But others say the problem isn’t how much money is spent per student in California, but rather how much of that per-student money actually gets spent in the classroom.

That issue has become a topic in the race for governor, with Republican Meg Whitman’s camp noting that just 60 percent of California’s education spending actually happens in the classroom.

Both Whitman and Democrat Jerry Brown are critical of the complex grant programs administered through the public education system, and both propose ambitious overhauls of the system.

Others, including state Sen. George Runner, R-Antelope Valley, are critical of the multiple layers of school administration in California, including local, county and state levels.

How’d we get here?
Two initiatives passed by California voters over several decades’ time have greatly affected how public education is funded in California.

Proposition 13 put restrictions on the amount of property tax that could be levied for purposes of education, said Look of the PTA.

As the cost of education — including everything from supplies to utilities and salaries — has gone up, revenue has remained same, Look said.

Passed in 1978, Proposition 13 also eliminated a lot of local control that school districts had over funding, shifting that power to Sacramento.

For instance, before Proposition 13 passed, 85 percent of College of the Canyons’ funds came from local sources. Now those funds come from Sacramento — and can be withheld by Sacramento.

Alarmed by downward trends in education, voters passed Proposition 98 in 2008. It was meant to establish a minimum percentage of state spending for public education.

“It was meant to say that education funding should never fall below this level,” Look said.

But that minimum has turned into a maximum level of state spending on education, she said.

Challenged students
Another factor in the high cost of education in California is the state’s high population of poor students and students who are English-language learners.

These social and educational challenges require additional resources and spending, Picus said.

Outdated formula
Santa Clarita Valley school districts face an extra funding hurdle.

An outdated funding formula from the 1970s has left local school districts permanently short-changed.

The formula was established in the 1970s, when the Santa Clarita Valley was a relatively rural community and property values were much lower.

The Santa Clarita Valley’s two largest elementary school districts, Saugus Union and Newhall, and the SCV’s only junior high and high school district, the William S. Hart Union High School District, are at the bottom of the state’s funding list compared to other Los Angeles County public schools.

The chances of updating that formula are slim.

The state Legislature would have to take the action. Although proposals have come before state lawmakers to give Santa Clarita Valley schools more money, they have failed.

Giving more money to SCV schools would mean taking it away from other school districts.

A call for reform
Ultimately, the costs of public education in California outpace the availability of funds, Picus said.

Should demands be met for smaller class sizes and better intervention-and-support programs, education costs would rise $24 billion to $32 billion, Picus said.

“We really don’t have the kind of quality instruction and support for students that they need,” Picus said.

The recent recession’s round of education spending cuts has led to a historic lawsuit that students, parents, school districts and education organizations filed in May calling for a completely new way to fund education in California.

“Our issue is that the entire system is broken,” said Look, who joined the California State PTA in the lawsuit’s filing. “We’re past the point of needing to do tweaks. We really need to throw out the system and start from scratch.”

Look said the lawsuit is part of the state’s need to reform education and finally meet its constitutional obligation.

“The state has a constitutional responsibility to provide every student with quality public education,” she said. “And yet they have no idea what that costs.”

Besides restoring the millions cut from education, Look said the lawsuit calls for more accountability.

“That’s something we feel that is not there in the current system,” she said. “We need a system that makes sense and can be accounted for.”

The state has tried to dismiss the lawsuit, but supporters hope the action starts a discussion of ways to fix the public education finance system.

“It’s more likely to lead to change than anything else we’re doing,” said Abe Hajela, counsel for three education advocacy organizations that filed the lawsuit.

“I think that California has the ability to fund education in a way that will give every student a chance for success,” Hajela said.

Until any major changes occur, or the impact of the recession dwindles, educators are left to balance reductions with more academic demands of students.

“Unfortunately,” Gibson said, “with society, it seems that something has to really go wrong in order to make a change.”

Next in the series: The affects of increased class sizes on students and the quality of education.

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