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Stop pretending

California's public schools are being asked to do more even as funding is cut. It can't be done.

December 20, 2010

Two court cases this month put California's public schools on notice. In one, the court ruled that schools no longer could ignore the state's requirements for physical education; a survey had found that fully half the schools in the state were providing fewer hours of gym instruction than the law requires in an effort to save money or to devote more hours in the day to teaching. In the other case, the state reached an out-of-court settlement in which it pledged that its schools would stop charging parents for basic supplies, and would provide parents with a way to challenge what they believe to be illegal fees.

These were the right outcomes. Individual schools and school districts can't unilaterally decide how many hours of gym students will get; physical activity is important to children's development, just as English and math lessons are. And parents shouldn't have to worry about whether they can afford to send their children to public school. Yet as justified as they were, these cases were not remedies for the malaise that afflicts California schools, but reflections of that malaise.

Our schools have been backed into a corner. Until Gov.-elect Jerry Brown spoke last week about how shocking the state's budget crisis is, and how yet more of the financial pain might fall on schools, the state had been pretending that education was going on as usual, with some snips and some trims and some new freedom to spend sums previously earmarked for specific programs. But that is a gross understatement of the severe problems facing California's schools, and we're no longer at the point where they can make their finances whole by cutting extraneous items and putting the administrative budget on a diet. Over the last three years, the average amount spent per pupil has dropped about $1,500, to about $8,300.

Many school districts, including the gargantuan Los Angeles Unified School District, have been forced to cut eight to 10 instructional days from the usual 180-day schedule. They have placed teachers and other staff on furlough. They don't have money for necessary janitorial work, much less art supplies. Primary-grade classes capped at 20 students are already a fading memory in many schools, as class sizes bump up toward 30 and near 40 in some classes for older students. California has long spent a little less money per student than the national average; now it ranks even lower: 43rd. The top-spending state, New York, lavishes more than $15,000 on each student.

State and federal policies aren't aligned with these fiscal realities. The federal No Child Left Behind Act is labeling more and more schools as failing as the nation nears the 2014 deadline by which all students theoretically must be proficient in English and math. We are nowhere near such an achievement, and without money it will become even more difficult to get there. Reformers are talking about paying and firing teachers based on whether their students' scores on standardized tests rose enough. The Obama administration wants more charter schools — which, it should be noted, often get private funding.

California's public schools are patching together what they can. They're trying to push more expenses onto parents, which runs counter to the state Constitution's promise of free public schools. With less instructional time and higher testing goals, they have sharply reduced recesses and gym. Neither action improves education. In fact, physical activity has been found to improve learning. But then, so do music and art, which also have been cut as schools press forward on core academics. State and federal authorities are putting more demands on schools but failing to give them the guidance, flexibility and resources to bridge the gap between reality and lofty expectations.

The argument among reformers is that no matter how much money is poured into schools, they won't improve without greater accountability, and that's true. One reason that No Child Left Behind gained favor with both Democrats and Republicans was that Title I money for schools with impoverished students had gone into programs that sounded good but made no real difference. But making ever-greater demands isn't enough on its own to create better schools.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's response to this dilemma consisted largely of lambasting teachers unions for their failure to accept needed reforms. We supported many of his suggestions, such as making tenure and seniority rules more flexible. It harms students when teachers must be laid off; it hurts them even more when contract rules and state law demand that low-performing and sometimes uncaring teachers must be protected by seniority rules while more effective but newer teachers are let go.

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