A little-noticed proposal by Gov. Jerry Brown to eliminate the second year of science as a high school graduation requirement is sparking concern among educators who fear it could deepen the academic divide among students and further erode the state's scientific and technological leadership.
The recommendation in Brown's revised May budget is aimed at freeing the state from reimbursing local school districts for the $250-million annual cost of the second-year science course. The state has not made any payouts to school districts since the requirement was ruled a mandate in 2005, so California owes public school systems $2.5 billion in unpaid claims.
"This is a fiscally-driven decision," said H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the state Finance Department. "We don't want to keep adding to the credit card balance we already have."
But educators worry that trimming science requirements will shut out students from qualifying to attend the University of California and California State University systems, both of which require two years of the subject. UC does not plan to alter that requirement; and Cal State is unlikely to change its policy, but trustees have not yet met over the issue, according to UC and Cal State officials.
Jessica Sawko of the California Science Teachers Assn. said financially struggling school districts could be the first to cut back science courses, potentially depriving less affluent students of equal access to higher education choices.
Paul Golaszewski of the nonpartisan state legislative analyst's office, however, said the effect would probably be small. Schools offer a range of science courses despite the state's failure to reimburse them and are likely to continue doing so even if the second-year science requirement is repealed, he said.
Some local educators agree.
The Inglewood Unified School District, for instance, is in the worst financial shape of any district in Los Angeles County and the only one facing financial insolvency. But Johnny J. Young, board president and a former science teacher, is adamant that science courses will not be reduced.
"It would be educational suicide to cut back on science or math," he said. "You would lessen the chance of students going to college, especially students of color. I will never support that."
At Van Nuys High School, Principal Judith A. Vanderbok also said she would not reduce her science classes. In fact, she is considering adding earth science, marine biology and environmental science to the school's offerings, which currently include regular and Advanced Placement biology, chemistry, physics and physiology.
"We think science is the gateway to technology, and that's where the jobs are," she said. "We want our students to be prepared."
She said 95% of Van Nuys students, who are largely low-income, choose to take three years of science. Van Nuys pays for much of the teaching costs with federal funds granted to low-income schools.
Regardless of state action, L.A. Unified will stand by its recently adopted policy requiring two years of science for high school graduation, according to Jaime R. Aquino, deputy superintendent of instruction.
State Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said California should be strengthening its science instruction, not reducing it.
Only 22% of eighth-graders passed a national science test, ranking California 47th among all states, according to scores from the 2012 National Assessment of Educational Progress released in April. A statewide study of elementary schools last year found that California is failing to invest enough time, money and training to teach science well.
As business leaders sound alarms over a shortage of workers well-trained in math, science, technology and engineering, new initiatives have been launched to strengthen instruction in those disciplines, including new science activities in more than 300 after-school programs.
The proposed cutbacks in science requirements would counter those efforts, Torlakson said.
"It's a huge contradiction that a state that produced such marvels to the world in technology is not investing enough in science to prepare students to fill the jobs of the future," he said.