L.A. Unified needs to do the math
Facing millions in cuts, the school board has to become financially prudent and focus on its core mission.
Editorial from the Los Angeles Times
November 16, 2008 -- Now that the Los Angeles Unified School District has more construction money than it knows what to do with, all it needs is enough money to operate the schools it already has.
Don't blame local school leaders for the catastrophic condition of the state budget. If the Legislature approves the package of new taxes sought by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, L.A. Unified alone will still have to cut more than $200 million in the middle of this school year. Without the new taxes, the figure doubles, and further cuts are in store next year.
But the school board must own up to its role in the district's current troubles. It has repeatedly favored the politically flashy over the fiscally prudent. A prime example is the $7-billion school renovation bond that voters approved Nov. 4. The district has no plans for nearly $3 billion of that money; it placed the bloated measure on the ballot because polls indicated that it could get more, and it did, with close to 70% of the vote.
The district can use the new money only for construction and repair, though, while it desperately needs revenue for teachers and textbooks. Had the board split the measure -- with a bond large enough to cover anticipated construction needs, plus a parcel tax to pay for actual education -- L.A.'s schools might be sitting pretty now.
Instead, Senior Deputy Supt. Ramon C. Cortines says that some existing schools might have to be closed even as the district is in the midst of an expansive building program. He's also looking at combining small schools into larger ones that can share principals, support staff and security. The district imprudently hired more staff each year, he said, even as enrollment, its main source of revenue, declined. While some other school districts have set aside enough reserves to save them from the most dire cuts, L.A. Unified has spent money it didn't have.
To their credit, board members had student achievement and welfare in mind when they embarked on offering more services to impoverished children and opening small schools that create a more personalized feel on campus. But they have been too quick to forge full steam ahead on new educational trends without fully assessing them, as well as making sure there's enough money to carry them out. This comes on top of simple, inexcusable waste, such as the district's underenrolled preschools, with too few children to bring in maximum state revenue as families languish on waiting lists for preschool spots.
We hope, along with educators, that schools will be spared from the worst of the state budget cuts. But wishing is no substitute for planning. It's imperative that L.A. Unified learn to use money more judiciously and that it focus on its core mission at a time when it may not be able to afford much else. No one wants to see the district learn the lesson of fiscal responsibility at the expense of students and teachers.
Give schools leeway on using funds
If state and federal authorities can't give California schools extra money, they might look at providing flexibility in letting schools allocate what they do get.
Editorial from the Los Angeles Times
November 16, 2008 - For California's schools, the question of the state budget shortfall comes down to this: Will they have an utterly unthinkable year, or just a horrible year? Even if the Legislature approves new taxes or other ways to raise revenue, the current projection is that $2.5 billion will be cut immediately from education.
The prospect of a sudden drop in funding has school officials so flummoxed that many are engaged in magical thinking, insisting that extra revenue must be found, somehow, somewhere. These days are short on fairy dust, though. The federal government, the most likely source of financial aid, is besieged with bailout requests.
If state and federal authorities cannot give California schools extra money, they might look at providing extra flexibility. To start, the U.S. Education Department should put an emergency moratorium on the sanctions prescribed by the No Child Left Behind Act. As it stands, schools that have fallen short of their testing targets must spend a chunk of their federal Title I funds on tutors and transporting students to other schools. There will be no improving test scores if schools can't afford basics; the common-sense move is to free this money for classroom use, at least until this crisis passes.
At the state level, large sums of education funding are tied up in a knot of rules about how money can and cannot be used, even when those rules don't always make sense for individual school districts.
School superintendents have been asking for years for leeway on the programthat limits class sizes to 20 students in kindergarten through third grade. The state hasn't paid the full costs of this limit in years, and education scholars are still arguing its usefulness in boosting achievement. Popular as the smaller classes have proved with parents and teachers (at least the primary-grade teachers), they have become an expensive burden that doesn’t always make pedagogical sense. Third-graders go from a class of perhaps 18 students to a fourth-grade class that often has 33 or more, and those disparities are likely to grow if schools have to lay off teachers.
Schools don't have to participate in the program -- as long as they're willing to face a mob of snarling parents -- but then they get none of the associated funding. It makes better sense to continue funding the smaller classes, but allow schools to raise the limit to 24 or 25 students.
The Legislature also should free up the sizable sums tied to other so-called categorical programs -- money that can be used only on arts and music education, say, or gifted students. Each program has worth, and each has a dedicated lobby that will shout doomsday if the money isn't preserved for its cause. But these discussions should take place at the local level, where school administrators, teachers and parents can determine the priorities that work best for their children in this bad year.