Closer Look at California’s Proposed Education Cuts

State budget deficit makes some cuts necessary

This week the California Teachers Association’s (CTA) “Cuts Hurt” bus tour will roll through San Francisco and Sacramento, and the CTA’s band – the “Angry Tired Teachers,” will continue to sing their theme song, which tells the story of the impact of teacher layoffs and budget cuts on California students. The lyrics go something like this: “Ooooooh, Cuts hurt; Ooooooh, Cuts hurt. Take a lot of pain. Jobs getting lost. Future getting tossed. Oh what a cost. Cuts hurt.”

While the band plays on and Democrats in Sacramento indignantly call for new taxes rather than teacher layoffs, school districts across the state are quietly rescinding pink slips and embracing more sensible budget cuts.

Most of the CTA bus campaign has focused on the 14,000 pink slips that were sent to teachers in March. This week, however, headlines across the state are beginning to contradict the CTA’s main message. On May 11th the Sacramento Bee reported that “Schools ease layoff plan, Fewer Area Teachers to receive pink slips.” On May 8th the San Francisco Chronicle reported that “Teachers get break – layoffs to be rescinded.” The list goes on: “Teacher Jobs Spared; “Mt. Diablo schools backtrack on layoffs”; “DSUSD teachers spared pink slips.”

School districts across the state are finding cost-cutting measures that no longer include teacher layoffs. In San Bernardino, for example, the San Bernardino City Unified School District trustees voted 7-0 to rescind all teacher layoffs. School district officials will cut spending by $31.1 million without laying off the 155 teachers who received preliminary pink slips. The alternative budget plan includes leaving 29 vacant posts unfilled, reducing health benefit costs by using an alternate program, and considering an early retirement incentive plan.

The CTA and other like-minded groups try to maintain the appearance of large teacher layoffs in order to gain public support for tax increases to direct more funding toward education. The potential tax increase that has received the most attention, and that might receive bipartisan support as budget pressures increases in Sacramento, is an expansion of the sales tax to include services from downloading music and movie tickets to washing your car. The argument behind this tax is that it would be a painless way to fully fund California schools. Yet, California already ranks fourth in the nation for tax burdens per household.

The ploy to raise taxes and increase education funding is reminiscent of 2003. The National Education Association tells the story of the 2003 pink-slip saga in “Pink Slip Blues” under similar California budget conditions:

Alameda, California, school officials sent pink slips to every single teacher. Eventually, 624 out of 634 were rescinded. Educators and parent supporters packed school board meetings, wrote letters, made phone calls, marched in the streets, and showed up in person to lobby at the offices of their state legislators. By June, California’s 21,000 notices had been whittled to 3,800 and the number was continuing to shrink.

While the CTA has remained focused on teacher layoffs it has failed to support reasonable plans to increase education funding in California and drive more dollars into the classroom. The CTA has not even acknowledged the Republican education budget proposal which would fund education next year at $57.7 billion. This is the funding level recommended by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, and it gives schools $2.1 billion more than the budget Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposed in January. In addition, the Republican education budget incorporates several important education reforms that would free school districts from costly mandates imposed by Sacramento and give local schools more freedom and flexibility to meet their students’ needs.

Proposition 98 spending for kindergarten through 12th grade education in the Governor’s proposed budget for 2008-09 is $7.4 billion higher than it was five years ago – and average daily attendance during that same period has declined by 74,000 students.

At some point, no matter how difficult, districts will have to face the reality of changing demographics and shifting enrollments. Local school administrators have been able to scale back the number of layoffs by making other cuts, encouraging older teachers to retire, or dipping into reserve funds. Here’s hoping historical trends continue and the great pink slip scare of 2008 is merely a rhetorical strategy to put pressure on state legislators to raise taxes to fund education without reducing spending.