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What Can Educators Do Besides March in Rallies to Cope with School Budget Cuts?

Lisa Snell
March 4, 2010, 11:43am

As the Los Angeles Times reports:

Thousands of students, teachers and parents in California and across the country are expected to stage rallies, demonstrations, walkouts and other actions Thursday to decry what they say is an assault on public education at all levels.

Let's examine what a real "day of action" might look like.

School districts have to deal with the reality that these serious budget deficits for states and local school districts will not go away no matter how many marches and teach-ins are staged. The bottom line is that state spending continues to far exceed state revenue. Eventually school districts are going to have to deal with structural budget issues that will not be solved by pink-slipping teachers every Spring. 

First, many school districts in California and elsewhere spread funding over too many schools and support under enrolled schools and staff at the expense of everyone. Kansas city presents an example of a bold superintendent who is acknowledging this budget reality. As Greg Toppo reports in USA Today:

Faced with declining enrollment and a $50 million budget shortfall, the Kansas City, Mo., schools chief wants the school board to close as many as 31 of the city's 61 schools and lay off one-fourth of its employees — including 285 teachers.

Covington wants it done by the time school starts in fall. A vote could come in March.

"The bottom line is the quality of education we're offering children in Kansas City is not good enough," he says. "One reason it's not good enough is that we've tried to spread our resources over far too many schools."

Consider the case of Los Angeles Unified which this week has issued 5,000 pink slips. The district has received national accolades for having the largest school building program in the nation. Yet, Los Angeles continues to support many under enrolled schools and will build new schools right next to schools that already have low capacity and then support both schools. As the Los Angeles Times reported back in 2008:

All told, the district estimates its schools will have a 16% vacancy rate by 2012 under currently mandated class sizes; it will have the capacity to seat 670,000 students, but only 560,000 are expected to enroll.

Some schools will have the equivalent of only a few empty classrooms. But 21 elementary schools are expected to have 300 or more empty seats each, 26 middle schools are expected to have at least 500 empty seats each, and six high schools are predicted to be 1,000 students under capacity.

LA Unified and many other districts continue to support more buildings than children and refuse to think strategically about closing schools and consolidating staff.

Second, these districts and their unions refuse to tackle seniority issues that lead to a much larger number of teachers receiving pink slips. The bottom line is that when districts like LA Unified use the "last hired, first fired" personnel management strategy rather than a more merit-based strategy that would include a mix of teachers based on performance, the raw number of teachers that are affected is much larger. If you only lay-off new teachers it takes a lot more of them to reach the same savings as strategically laying off senior teachers and new hires that have performance issues.

In addition, if school districts would tackle their unsustainable pension obligations that offer benefits far above the private sector and continues to encroach on day to day operating costs they might also find some money for students and reduce layoffs.

Districts could also take more simple steps like small across the board reductions in pay. A family does not stop eating food, they make across the board cuts, which unions are unwilling to negotiate. UTLA has repeatedly been willing to see thousands of teachers laid off rather than take a small across the board pay cut.


Lisa Snell is Director of Education


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