The U.S. education secretary Thursday criticized the education funding cuts that California lawmakers have used to balance the budget, but offered limited alternatives for accomplishing the same level of cost savings in the short run.
The idea that "somehow reducing the school days or school year or instructional time is a smart way to reduce spending -- I cannot support that," Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a conference call with reporters. "There's a right way and a wrong way to cut spending."
California has allowed school systems to shorten the school year by five days each of the last two years.
Duncan had some alternative ideas, but some of them, such as improving data systems, would add to near-term costs before producing savings, and others could yield only modest savings compared with the size of the cuts that states are seeking, or they could require years to bear fruit.
One idea he highlighted is selective class-size increases. He said he'd rather have his child in a class of 28 students with a great teacher than in a class of 23 students with a mediocre teacher. The high-quality teachers with more students could receive more money and still save dollars for a school district, he said. The cost cutting that he opposes includes the elimination of instruction in the arts and foreign languages and high-quality early learning programs, as well as laying off teachers without a system in place to keep the most talented ones. All of these strategies have been commonly used by local school districts.
Duncan also wanted to call attention to flexibility that is available with federal funds. He noted that with several federal programs a local school system can divert up to half the funding it gets from Washington to other purposes.
The federal education department released guidelines Thursday to help state and local school systems reduce spending, maximize current dollars and find new funding.
The guides are a follow-up to a recent governors conference. Duncan noted that there are more than two dozen new governers; most face serious funding shortfalls that could persist for years.
"We can never allow the 'new normal' to take us backward," Duncan said. "We have to be smart. We have to be strategic."