In light of an expected $54 billion budget deficit following the COVID-19 economic shutdown, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced budget cuts including a reduction of $7 billion to local school districts.
The cutbacks may be deeper than those made during the last decade’s recession, which has led California school officials to sound the alarms.
“We believe our school districts can’t reopen safely if they have to implement these kinds of cuts,” California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said last week. Despite an influx of federal dollars from two stimulus packages, Thurmond wants more federal assistance.
Newsom and four other Western governors have asked the feds to provide an eye-popping $1 trillion. Such a massive bailout seems unlikely given the needs of other states, the exploding deficit and the political reality of a Republican administration that’s not particularly sympathetic to the plight of big-spending blue states.
Some obvious facts are lost in these discussions. Despite record-setting funding levels and slowing student populations, “local school districts are hitting the panic button,” wrote the Los Angeles Times’ John Myers in May 2019 — long before anyone had heard of coronavirus. Schools had been facing skyrocketing special-education, pension and health-care costs, leading to “compelling evidence that the status quo is unsustainable.”
Before the crisis, Newsom had announced a budget that was generous to public schools. But his proposed 2.29 percent cost-of-living adjustment upset school officials, who had sought a 3 percent hike. “Districts are complaining that the difference … is compounding an already financially fraught year, in which there’s not enough money to cover basic operating expenses,” as EdSource reported in March.
School officials now are complaining about layoffs, which likely are necessary given dropping revenues. They had, however, been warning about that possibility before the latest reductions. As usual, debates about California’s public schools center on funding formulas, rather than educational outcomes.
The goal of public schools should be to effectively teach schoolchildren — not maintain growing administrative fiefdoms and world-class retirement benefits. Unions should have a voice in the process, but their employee-protection priorities shouldn’t top the list. Yet once again, these bureaucratic priorities are dominating the school debate.
In recent years, the Legislature and governor have imposed restrictions on charter schools, which have had a remarkable record at boosting student achievement in a cost-effective way. The California auditor found last year that the state “does not explicitly require districts to spend their supplemental and concentration funds on the intended student groups or to track how they spend those funds.” That issue was never resolved.
California’s student performance has not noticeably improved over the past decade, even as public-school budgets have soared by 60 percent.
Nevertheless, Thurmond and others would have us believe the main obstacle to safely operating the public schools is a lack of additional money. At some point, we’d hope the state’s educational brain trusts might realize that they need to focus on other subjects than accounting.
Here’s the reality: A bailout won’t fix the fundamental budget problems faced by the state’s public schools, which long predate the COVID-19 budget shortfalls. It’s time for state officials to focus on serious reforms that boost education outcomes and not just incoming dollars. The solution will come from creativity here at home, not from federal bailouts.