Sunday, April 20, 2008

California Public Schools Struggle to Cover Basics

Student Car Wash

My school's in the middle of contract negotiations, and the union's tentative agreement is up for a ratification vote by the faculty. The college's student newspaper story on the contract is here.

As is often the case, there's a range of opinions among the faculty on how big a raise we deserve. Should the union hold out for a better deal, or is the current economic environment unfavorable to a prolonged impasse?

Beats me, although I do think that given the growing fiscal difficulities California's likely to face this year and next (at least), I thought today's story on the financial situation among many school districts in the state was interesting and relevant: "California Public Schools Seek Private Money Just to Cover the Basics":

South Orange County families are being urged to donate $400 per student to save the jobs of 266 teachers in the Capistrano Unified School District.

Parents at Long Beach's Longfellow Elementary are among countless statewide who are launching fundraising foundations.

Bay Area parents launched a campaign featuring children standing in trash cans; the theme is "Public Education Is Too Valuable to Waste."

A free public school education is guaranteed by the state Constitution to every California child. But as districts grapple with proposed state funding cuts that could cause the layoffs of thousands of teachers and inflate class sizes, parents are being asked to dig deeper into their pocketbooks to help.

"Public education is free, but an excellent public education is not free at this point," said Janet Berry, president of the Davis Schools Foundation, which recently launched the Dollar-a-Day campaign, urging citizens of the city near Sacramento to donate $365 per child, grandchild or student acquaintance.

But "we never really imagined the magnitude of the problem, the budget cuts, would be this great."

Educators must finalize their budgets for the next school year before Sacramento votes on the state's spending plan. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposed budget would cut about $4.8 billion in education funding this year and next. As a result, potential layoff notices have been issued to 20,000 teachers, librarians, nurses and others.

In addition to increasing class sizes, school districts across the state are considering closing schools, eliminating International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement courses and doing away with sports.

School districts have long trotted out worst-case scenarios in an effort to sway lawmakers before they vote on the budget; this year, however, educators and politicians say lean times are ahead.

Public school district fundraising foundations were first formed after voter approval in 1978 of Proposition 13, which limited property tax increases and dramatically reduced school finances. Those groups have long helped parents in affluent areas enrich their children's public school educations in ways that include field trips, music classes and such expensive classroom equipment as digital cameras, scientific robots and laptops. Today, such groups are fighting to pay for the basics: teachers' jobs, manageable class sizes, nurses.

When families are being asked to pony up for the local elementaries, it might be hard to justify big pay raises at the local community college, where many in the community - I have heard - have an image of faculty who are pampered with 15-hour work-weeks and Cadillac health and retirement benefit plans.

Read the whole Times piece, in any case.

It turns out that the districts able to generate substantial private funding are the same institutions that have higher average levels of student achievement.

The Irvine Unified School District, in affluent South Orange County, California, generally holds up well in state rankings of best performing school districts.

While the district, like others around the state, faces layoffs, the district's private fundraising is phenomenal. The Irvine Public Schools Foundation, for example, is holding its 5th Annual "House Raffle," where a new home valued at $639,000 is the grand prize, and organizers use the proceeds to support educational programs for the district's 25,000 students.

Photo Credit: Los Angeles Times