Wednesday, February 04, 2009

State school chief sees 'precarious' situation

Nanette Asimov, Chronicle Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 4, 2009

In his grimmest State of Education address yet, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell pointed to a "precarious" school system all but collapsing under the weight of California's fiscal crisis.

Schools expect to lose $10 billion this year alone, resulting in teacher layoffs, soaring class sizes and fewer librarians and nurses, O'Connell said in his sixth annual overview of education.

"These cuts are nothing short of breathtaking," he said, singling out Hayward Unified School District, which plans to lay off 170 of its 1,100 teachers and raise elementary class sizes from 20 to 32 students.

Other districts around the state are making similar cuts, including Lake Elsinore Unified in Riverside County, where "schools are putting duct tape over light switches to save on electricity," he said.

To ease the burden, O'Connell said his Department of Education will end compliance visits to districts for at least a year. The visits try to ensure that tax money is properly spent on numerous state-mandated programs - from after-school classes to curriculum for gifted students.

The moratorium essentially gives districts a green light to spend scarce dollars as they wish.

"During these challenging times I want districts and schools to focus every ounce of energy they have on improving student achievement, not on preparing for program audits," O'Connell said.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed making such flexibility permanent and legal. While districts' officials applaud the move, education groups that benefit from the programs have criticized it.

Meanwhile, the fiscal crisis comes at a time when students are not only needier - the numbers of homeless students and those qualifying for subsidized lunch have soared - but when more is demanded of them academically, O'Connell said.

Nearly 6.3 million students are enrolled statewide, with about 45 percent scoring "proficient" on California's difficult English and math exams.

The proficiency rate must grow to about 55 percent this school year under the federal No Child Left Behind education act, or schools may face corrective action.

O'Connell also cited positive trends: 30 percent fewer students are scoring in the bottom tiers of achievement since 2002; 18 percent more schools hit test-score targets between 2007 and 2008; and more students are taking college entrance exams than ever.

But he warned that California is destined for a "two-tiered system of education" in which the students who need the most help will fall even further behind unless the state finds a way to better fund public education. As an example, he said that five years after Maryland increased spending by $2,500 per pupil, the state reading and math scores soared.

Schwarzenegger's newly appointed education adviser, Glen Thomas, responded with a rosier view of California's $41 billion state school budget.

"The governor has gone to extraordinary lengths to protect education from feeling the full effects of the state's $42 billion budget deficit," he said.

Thomas said the governor's proposal gives schools billions of dollars more than they are entitled to under Proposition 98, the law setting a minimum school-funding guarantee.

O'Connell and other education advocates say the opposite is true, and that Schwarzenegger is proposing a fiscal calculation that would rob the schools of billions of dollars they are entitled to.

The dispute mirrors the stalemate in Sacramento, as lawmakers and the governor continue negotiating over how to close the state's budget gap - estimated at $42 billion over the next 17 months.

In his address, O'Connell said he is hopeful that the federal stimulus package will bring billions of dollars to jump-start stalled school construction projects in California, and that he will sponsor legislation to place a large school construction bond on the next statewide ballot.

He said he also supports legislation to lower the threshold for passing local parcel taxes for schools, from two-thirds voter approval to 55 percent.

Such efforts have failed in the past.

E-mail Nanette Asimov at

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