California, home to 1 in 9 American schoolchildren, is on the brink of what may be the biggest public education crisis in state history. Facing a $16 billion state budget shortfall, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed $4.8 billion in school-funding cuts, or 10 percent of education spending.
In the past week, over 20,000 preliminary pink slips were sent by school districts to teachers and administrators state wide, according to the California Teachers Association. The association estimates another 87,000 (of a total 350,000 public school teachers) could come if Governor Schwarzenegger holds to his budget cut request.
Some say the request is a cry of "wolf" intended to draw public attention and force stalemated politicians to reconsider the cuts – or raise taxes. Others say fiscal reality will push the cuts through as presented.
Meanwhile, school districts and parents are in paroxysms over the thousands of teacher layoffs, the projected loss of librarians, nurses, counselors, and arts personnel; and the need to close schools, increase class sizes, and postpone buying new books.
"This is a story that carries important lessons for how American states fund their public education," says Michael Kirst, professor emeritus of education and business administration at Stanford University in Palo Alto. California's Proposition 13 of 1978, which capped property taxes, made districts more dependent on state aid for education. The state, he says "has seen its public schools suffer ever since."
"Most states leave the cushion of allowing local government to raise property taxes when state school revenues don't come through. This is a giant case study that they might want to keep that option or end up like California."
There are other problems with the state's governance that have cost education in budget battles going back decades, Dr. Kirst and others say. State revenues are derived largely from capital-gains taxes and progressive income tax, a combination that causes wild swings in revenue. "[So] when times are good they are very good and when bad they are painful," says Kirst.
And because the state budget requires a two-thirds majority to pass, a handful of politicians can block it. "With the state GOP refusing to approve anything with revenue tied to it and Democrats unwilling to pass education cuts, it's a recipe for this year's stalemate," says Kevin Gordon, president of School Innovations and Advocacy, the state's largest lobbying firm for public schools.
This boom/bust cycle has wreaked havoc on California public education. From 1980 to 2000, the state dropped from No. 1 on several indicators – per pupil spending, test scores, and teachers' salaries – to below 47. When boom times came – 1999 taxes on capital gains brought $24 billion to the state treasury – schools spent the windfall immediately to make up for past debt, without saving for rainy days to come.
The result has been a pattern of teacher shortages, with many of the best teachers fleeing the state seeking stability, better conditions, and higher salaries. This adds to the state's other problems: 25 percent of students are "English learners," who need to be taught in special classes, and the number of schools serving low-income students is well above the national average.
Experts say teacher shortages could occur again in the current situation, even if the proposed budget cuts don't make it through. That's because state law mandates that school districts notify next fall's laid-off teachers by March 15, and by May 15 if such notices are to be rescinded. Because most state budgets here are not signed until August, the teachers who have been laid off may have already left for greener pastures. "By fall, the state may have changed its mind about those teachers it just gave pink slips to, but by then it could be too late," says Scott Plotkin, president of the California School Boards Association.
Whatever happens, it is clear that teachers, district officials, and parents are anxious. San Diego County school districts are slashing $360 million partly by expanding classrooms at the earliest grades of elementary school, usually capped at 20 students. Nurses and librarians will be shared among schools.
Los Angeles Unified, the second-largest district in the US, is also anticipating $460 million in cuts by killing off elective courses, some sports programs, and firing art teachers, counselors, and personnel from cafeterias to gymnasiums.
"Already the bathrooms stink, the roof is leaking, and we never have enough textbooks. Now the school is going to take away key teachers and personnel," says Fidel Garcia, father of two at Manchester Ave. Elementary School in downtown L.A. "This can't be right."
To fight the cuts, the CTA has launched a statewide PR campaign, complete with placard protests and letters, targeting key legislators. Experts say a concerted public outcry is necessary. "If the public doesn't get a sense of what these deep cuts mean – [by seeing that] your favorite teacher won't be at school next year or new textbooks might not be purchased – then there will be no political traction to get this reversed," says Mr. Gordon.
Even so, some damage has already been done. California will need thousands of teachers in the next decade. Says David Sanchez, president of the CTA: "Why would any good teacher want to come here if they have to wonder what each year's budget is going to bring?"