FROM SACRAMENTO — It's inevitable that California public schools soon will be whacked with hefty program cuts. And that's a shame because students recently have been making significant gains.
A decade of academic advancement due to class-size reduction, tougher curriculum, higher standards, testing, accountability and other reforms could be stalled -- even reversed -- by the necessity to cut spending.
But there's no way around it. When the state's general fund is projected to be nearly $42 billion in the hole by the middle of next year and the cost of kindergarten-through-community college eats up roughly 40% of that fund, schools must take a hit, even after the probable tax increases.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed shorting schools $2.1 billion during the rest of this academic year and $3.1 billion the next. Perhaps most eye-opening, he'd save the state $1.1 billion by cutting off money for one week's worth of instruction. The number of school days would be reduced to 175 from 180.
"It's a loss of learning opportunities," notes state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell. "Only eight states have fewer than 180 days."
Among other cuts, Schwarzenegger has proposed saving $114 million by eliminating a special program to bolster learning in "low-performing" schools. Democrats have suggested the same thing.
Also in jeopardy are class-size reduction, advanced placement programs for the university-bound, extra help for English learners, special ed, summer school, counseling, gifted programs, arts and music and a long list of other "categorical" programs that local districts would be free to cannibalize to make ends meet.
"If we were a baseball team, we'd be playing with seven players to the other team's nine and still be expected to beat them," says veteran education consultant John Mockler, referring to California's challenge in educating the most diverse school population in the nation -- 25% are English learners -- on relatively sparse rations.
A new report by Education Week, a national publication, ranks California 47th among the states in per-pupil spending, "adjusted for regional cost differences."
Mockler says that 4.4% of Californians' personal income is spent on public schools. By comparison, it was 5.6% in 1972 when Ronald Reagan was governor. That 1.2% difference, he says, is the equivalent of $22 billion. "Bring back Ron, I say."
A bit about Mockler: He's not exactly a household name, except around the Capitol, where he is a legend. The pony-tailed ed guru has been at the center of most education policy debates as a legislative staffer, gubernatorial appointee or consultant for 44 years.
Only a handful of people truly understand the complexities of school finance. And nobody does better than Mockler because he wrote the law: Proposition 98. Sponsored by the California Teachers Assn. and approved by voters in 1988, Proposition 98 basically guarantees K-12 schools and community colleges 40% of the general fund.
But it's far from that simple. And Mockler, 67, has made a very good living explaining, manipulating and protecting Proposition 98. "It allowed me to send my two kids to college," he says, grinning.
"Schwarzenegger once came over to me and said, 'I think I understand. Every time I screw with Proposition 98, you get richer.' "
Mockler is currently on a crusade to prove that California is getting its money's worth on schools.
He stopped me in a crosswalk to deliver his pitch.
"If you only read newspapers or listened to talk shows, you'd think high schools were places of violence and sloth and didn't do squat," he said. "The system's not perfect. But there's significant improvement.
"It's not true that the sky's falling."
He offered some testing data from the Department of Education covering the last five years:
* There has been a 31% gain in students of all grades who score "proficient" or "advanced" in reading. (In 2003, 35% did; by 2008 the figure was up to 46%.)
* For math, there has been a 23% gain (from 35% to 43%).
* The figures are most dramatic for targeted groups that started at a lower base. Among Latinos, there was a 60% gain into the higher reading levels (from 20% of students to 32%). For blacks, 50% tested higher (from 22% to 33%). And for the "educationally [economically] disadvantaged," the rise was 60% (from 20% to 32%).
* These groups also showed significant gains in math testing: 43% higher for Latinos, 47% for blacks and 37% for educationally disadvantaged.
* And a lot more kids overall have been taking high-end math and science courses.
The actual "achievement gap" -- the difference between the higher scores of whites and Asians versus the lower results of blacks and Latinos -- has not narrowed much, although it did begin to budge last year. But a bigger percentage of blacks and Latinos are improving.
Mockler says it's likely the budget cuts will slow the gains, but not reverse them.
O'Connell isn't so sure. He fears that the cuts threaten "a major setback" in efforts to close the achievement gap. "More than 1.5 million English learners attend school in California. It's critical to our entire state's economic future that they succeed and are well prepared for the competitive global economy.
"We're making progress," he adds. "It's slow, it's hard, it's incremental. But we've been on the right track. Reducing the school year, in particular, would be a step backward."
Unfortunately, the budget bell is ringing for California's schools to take a recessionary recess from reform.