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Commentary

State Should Pay Its Debt to Our Schools

April 29, 2002|DAY HIGUCHI, ROY ROMER and CAPRICE YOUNG | Day Higuchi is the president of United Teachers-Los Angeles. Roy Romer is the superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Caprice Young is the president of the LAUSD Board of Education.

The three of us may not agree on everything, but there is one issue on which we are all in alignment: The state, which ranks dead last in K-12 school funding nationally as a percentage of wealth per person, needs to live up to its education funding commitments. It now owes the Los Angeles school district more than $500 million in arrears and $100 million in constitutionally mandated funds.

A lot of attention has been focused on the Los Angeles Unified School District as it struggles to close a budget gap of more than $425 million. The shortfall is $500 million-plus, if you include at least reasonable cost-of-living adjustments for school faculty and staff.

Extraordinarily difficult decisions are on the table. They include the following: increasing class size from 38 to more than 40 students in the fourth through the 12th grades; reducing the number of counselors and nurses; cutting library hours by half; postponing long-needed computer systems that would reduce the paperwork load on school principals; putting off restoration of arts programs; cutting back building maintenance and after-school programs and more.

These changes would be devastating, especially when we are just beginning to make major gains. Test scores are going up, technology now reaches nearly every classroom, arts programs have begun to be restored, teachers' salaries have risen and, for the first time in 30 years, we are successfully building and opening new schools.

But so much more needs to be done. The services that support schools must be made more efficient, middle and high school programs need to be improved to address a serious achievement gap, teacher and staff salaries must be kept competitive, parent programs should be expanded, new principals must be recruited and trained to lead the 85 new schools opening by 2007 and after-school programs must be expanded to all school sites.

Since 1978, when Proposition 13 passed, more than 90% of the school funding has come from or through the state. During fiscal year 2001-2002, the state slashed the education budget midyear by $845 million, with Los Angeles taking the hardest hit.

Now the state legislative analyst is projecting the state 2002-2003 budget deficit to be more than $20 billion.

We understand that asking for money for education can seem like asking for water from a stone, but it is reasonable for the Los Angeles schools to receive what has been promised by the state and what is required in the California Constitution.

The state has accumulated more than $509 million in unpaid debts to the Los Angeles schools during the last five years. This money is owed to the school district to pay for state mandates related to special education and school overcrowding.

The state should pay up. That alone would solve this year's school district budget crisis and allow the district to set aside a small reserve for next year.

Next, the state needs to live up to the state constitutional requirement to keep the education budget whole on a year-to-year basis. That's $800 million statewide that would help not only Los Angeles students (to the tune of nearly $100 million) but all of the state's school districts, every one of which is facing the same dire cuts.

Finally, and most important, when the voters gave the power of the education purse to the state 30 years ago, a profound responsibility went with it. The state needs to live up to the challenge of adequately funding California's education system.

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