Wednesday, March 23, 2011

California’s Budget Woes: Schools Suffering, Children Suffering More

California Schools Chief Tom Torlakson released a report Monday showing that 2 million students (30% of all pupils) attend a financially troubled school, according to the L.A. Times. Torlakson’s conclusion was based on a survey of principals conducted by the Institute of Democracy, Education and Access (IDEA) at UCLA. The survey showed dramatic class sizes increases (in some cases double), summer school classes reduced or cut altogether at 65% of schools, and half of all schools reporting a significant reduction in counselors. The report also said that 75% of principals saw increases in homelessness among their students, while 56% saw increased food insecurity. The report can be read here: Free Fall:  Educational Opportunities in 2011.

Torlakson called the report “a wake-up call for California and its leaders,” and said “We have to invest in education again and start to turn things around.” While this statement is true and it is consistent with the ambitious school reform plan he announced this week at CSU East Bay (see Torlakson’s Dream, Make California Schools Less Bad), it does not even mention, let alone provide proposals for solving the larger and more intractable problem of growing familial poverty. Even if there was money available to bolster school budgets, this would do little or nothing to increase food and housing security for children at home or provide the necessary medical and social support necessary for healthy cognitive and social development.

A state Department of Education report says that growing numbers of school districts face insolvency, according to the Sacramento Bee. This is assuming Gov. Brown tax extensions go through. Should they fail, the school failures will dramatically increase. 13 school systems are already on the verge of financial collapse, with another 97 at extreme risk, including Los Angeles Unified (LAUSD), the second largest in the U.S. A district-by-district breakdown can be found here. Furthermore, Brown is claiming that if the tax extensions fail, California schools might have to cut six weeks off the school year (see Sign On San Diego), amounting to a six-week pay cut for teachers and a lot of unplanned family days for parents who would have to take time off work to care for kids who would normally have been in school in April and May.

According to Kathryn Baron (posted on Fensterwald’s Educated Guess blog), one consequence of the budget cuts is that California’s high schools are providing less time, attention and quality to their programs, resulting in declining student engagement and achievement. Furloughs and shortened school years result in reduced instructional minutes, forcing teachers to try to cram the same content standards into fewer minutes, stressing out students and short-changing them the time and attention they need to master them. Budget induced layoffs exacerbate this by increasing class sizes and further reducing the amount of time and attention teachers can give to students.

This problem is compounded by numerous other factors, like NCLB and corporate greed. NCLB, of course, is forcing schools to cut back on curriculum and activities to make room for more test prep, which reduces the excitement and fun of learning, potentially reducing engagement, while also cutting further into instructional minutes. An example of corporate greed cutting into curriculum and instructional minutes comes from my own school district, where Sodexo/Marriot, who runs our food services, cut a deal with the district guaranteeing them a minimum profit. When they failed to make this profit (no doubt due to the terrible quality of their food), the district decided to add a brunch period (to encourage students to buy more of their junk), which cut an additional 10 minutes from the daily instructional minutes.

However, there is a much more tragic way in which the economic crisis is cutting into instructional minutes and quality. So many kids are coming to school hungry, depressed, anxious, or with behavior problems exacerbated by the uncertainty and stress of their family’s financial woes, that many teachers and schools have little time left for instruction after addressing the more urgent needs of these children.

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