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School Cuts Must Be Deft

January 04, 2003

Cutting the budgets of California's public schools by $2 billion or more, the amount that elected officials are discussing to help close a $34-billion state revenue shortfall, takes more ingenuity and finesse than leaders have shown so far.

Among other things, Gov. Gray Davis proposes a $1.1-billion across-the-board cut that schools would absorb as best they could. Yet he withholds from school districts the flexibility to absorb the blow. For example, Davis wants to take $60 million from the program that keeps class sizes at 20 in primary grades but doesn't relax any of the requirements.

Such fuzzy budgeting might be politically palatable but will end up strangling schools and hurting instruction more than necessary.

The state education secretary, state schools superintendent and California Teachers Assn. offer no new ideas. Only the legislative analyst's office has come out with fresh approaches. It suggests letting schools delay the purchase of new textbooks, for example, and putting off a couple of teacher-training and school-consulting programs.

Some ideas that should also go into the mix:

* Temporarily shorten the school year by one day. This would save $80 million in teacher salaries, not to mention electricity and other costs. In return, give teachers more say over their continuing training programs, letting them go outside a strict district course list. Or excuse teachers from classroom work on training days, which would require the state to relax some rules on daily attendance payments.

It's hard to imagine the state's rigid teachers unions agreeing to any temporary cut, but perhaps the union should talk to its members before slamming a fist on the table.

* Make up the instructional time by saving even more money on nonessential testing. Do kids really need the Golden State Exam? Can the state standards test make do for now as a high school exit exam?

* Give schools breathing room on class-size reduction. Right now, classes are capped at 20 students in grades one through three. If one extra student enrolls at midyear, the school has to open a new class. Change it to an average of 20 students per class, with individual classes capped at 22.

* Delay implementation of a state law, SB 1419, that all but forbids schools to contract out for such nonteaching services as transportation and landscaping.

* Allow districts to shift funds from one specialized program to another. Some districts have surpluses in their cafeteria funds that could be used to boost special education or keep class sizes low.

All such possibilities need to go on the table. Administrators, labor leaders and legislators must be smart and collaborative to save money with the least effect on students.

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