Are Over 100,000 California Teachers Getting Pink Slips?

When it is time to make budget cuts, teachers shouldn't be the first to go

The California Teachers Association is currently running a statewide advertising campaign claiming that the proposed education budget cuts will result in 107,000 teachers losing their jobs.

Similarly, if you’ve picked up any newspaper in California recently you have read about the thousands of teachers receiving pink slips from their school districts. Alarming articles with headlines like “Teachers on Edge, Pink Slips Loom,” and “More than half of Canyon Vista and Oak Grove elementary staffs are not expected to return next year,” give devastating accounts of the havoc that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s budget cuts will wreak on local schools.

State Schools Chief Jack O’Connell sent out a widely cited press release estimating that more than 20,000 teachers and support staff have received layoff notices because of the proposed $4.8 billion (10 percent) cut to education spending. Historical evidence suggests that this pink-slip campaign, while undoubtedly disturbing to individual teachers, is largely a rhetorical ploy to create outrage and popular support for more education funding.

The chances of large numbers of teachers actually being laid off are slim. According to the San Diego Union Tribune‘s Chris Reed, in 2003, when it was announced that 30,000 teachers would be dismissed because of budget cuts less than 10 percent were actually let go.

According to the National Education Association, the average teacher’s salary in California is $60,000 (the highest in the nation). If 107,000 teachers were dismissed this would generate more than $6.4 billion dollars in savings, not counting the massive additional savings from the reduced costs of benefits.

The bottom line is that the budget reduction to schools is greatly overstated in the media and education establishment press releases. School districts are not really losing $4.8 billion dollars from 2007-2008 until 2008-2009. The governor’s proposed education funding for 2008-09 is actually only $1.1 billion less than his 2007-08 funding. He cuts education money from $57.6 billion to $56.5 billion – a 1.9 percent cut.

And it is important to note that, Proposition 98 spending for kindergarten through 12th-grade education in Gov. Schwarzenegger’s proposal for 2008-09 is $7.4 billion higher than it was five years ago, while average daily attendance in the state’s schools has declined by 74,000 students during that same period.

The governor’s budget is the worst case scenario. The Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO), under Elizabeth Hill, has a much more reasonable proposal in which schools would receive a flat year-to-year budget with no gains or reductions and more control over funding. Rather than an across the board reduction, Hill recommends cutting “poorly structured, duplicative or technically over budgeted” programs. She also recommends consolidating 50 categorical programs into four large block grants to give local administrators control over 80 percent of K-12 funding.

The LAO proposals would reduce the amount by which the complex Proposition 98 minimum-school-funding floor would have to be lowered by $3.2 billion.

Unfortunately, the education establishment is not willing to compromise and support the LAO’s plan. They will not settle for flat funding in a year when the state faces a $16 billion dollar deficit and school enrollment continues a sharp decline.

The state’s education establishment also uses a contemptible strategy to reduce local education budgets. Parents, students and lawmakers should ask: Why should 107,000 teachers be the first to go if there are budget cuts?

Education officials at state, county and local levels need to seriously look at reducing the number of professional educators who are not in classrooms. When revenues are tight, spending reductions need to be made outside of the classroom first.

Some California districts bucked the teacher pink slip hype and decided not to issue layoff notices to any permanent teachers. For example, Roger Buschmann, Los Angeles Unified’s chief human resources officer, told the Los Angeles Times, “We gave it a lot of thought and decided, ‘Why worry them unnecessarily?'”

On the other hand, Los Angeles Unified, which is projecting a $430 million deficit, notified about 3,000 administrators and senior management contract employees that they may not return next year. While it is doubtful that 3,000 central administrators would be let go in Los Angeles, this is the most sensible course of action to protect schools from losing teachers.

There are several other California districts that are proposing much more rationale cost-cutting strategies as an alternative to giving teachers pink slips. For example, in Corona-Norco Unified, where my own children go to school, the district opted to first eliminate a $16 million cost of living increase before laying-off teachers.

In Lake Elsinore Unified, the district instituted a pay raise freeze for all administrators and 10 percent cuts budget to all central office departments.

These districts reflect a nationwide trend to reduce central office costs first and direct more dollars to the classroom. In Washington, DC, Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee dismissed 98 workers at the central office saving $6 million to be invested in classrooms.

In Baltimore, schools chief Andres Alonso’s 2008-2009 budget would cut $110 million from the central office, eliminating more than 300 central office jobs and redistributing $70 million to schools and using $40 million to help close a budget shortfall. He would reassign administrators as classroom teachers and principals to more effectively manage resources.

New York City has also paid for funding increases to individual schools by reducing centralized staff. There, a move to a school empowerment system, where principals control resources, has been in conjunction with a “right-sizing” of the central education office. Millions of dollars have been redirected to New York classrooms.

Chances are the great pink slip scare of 2008 will turn out to be more hype than substance. California has a real $16 billion deficit; there is no logical reason that it should be balanced on the backs of teachers.