By JULIET WILLIAMS Associated Press Writer | San Jose Mercury News
02/03/2009 --SACRAMENTO—Warning that its public schools are in a "precarious" state, California's top education official on Tuesday called for more money even as lawmakers were considering billions of dollars in cuts to help address the state's massive budget deficit.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell said California's system of funding education, in which money is directed at dozens of specialized programs enshrined over decades, isn't working.
"The state of public education in California is precarious," he said during his annual state of education address. "Beyond the immediate crisis, and even more alarming to me, is the long-term future of our common education system."
California spends about $48 billion a year on K-12 education, almost half its general fund, but its students fare poorly when compared to their peers in other states on standardized tests. The state's schools also have a persistent gap in achievement rates: white, Asian and wealthier students far outperform students who are black, Hispanic and poor.
O'Connell said without more money, California will ensure a two-tiered education system for its students.
"Families who struggle financially will be left with a substandard system, one that cannot possibly prepare their children to be able to compete in a changing global economy," he said.
His comments came as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders are struggling with a budget deficit estimated at $42 billion through June 2010. Whatever compromise they reach is sure to include billions of dollars in cuts to public schools.
Education interest groups are at odds over what programs should be given a lower priority.
Schwarzenegger, a Republican, has proposed giving school districts more spending flexibility that would allow them to spend the money where local officials decide it is most needed.
The state's largest teachers union, the California Teachers Association, is mobilizing against any plan that would allow local school administrators to divert money from a program that keeps class sizes smaller—and more teachers employed—in kindergarten through third grade.
Democrats have proposed suspending laws that require schools to buy updated textbooks and make repairs in some of the poorest school districts.
O'Connell, a Democrat, stopped short of choosing sides in his speech but said major revisions to the funding structure and priorities are needed.
Assemblyman Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, said he agreed with O'Connell's call to streamline the state's complicated financing system but said it's unrealistic to ask for more money as the state hurtles toward insolvency.
"In a perfect world, I'd love to see more money for education. But we're not in a perfect world," said Huff, vice chairman of the Senate education committee. "Every sector of the budget is taking a hit this year. I'd like to see us do a better job with the money we have in education."
State Sen. Gloria Romero, chairwoman of the Senate education committee, said the state should use its unprecedented funding crisis to restructure the state Department of Education and decentralize state programs.
"Sacramento has in a sense put the shackles on schools in California," said the Los Angeles Democrat, a likely candidate for school superintendent in 2010.
Romero said she intends to "explore how we can decentralize this very bureaucratic system that for years has mandated down to the very textbook that's used in the classroom."
O'Connell said he is suspending all program audits that are not mandated by law to help districts cope with the coming spending cuts.
February 3, 2009
Contact: Hilary McLean
Schools Chief Jack O'Connell Delivers 2009 State of Education Address
Outlines Proposals to Help Schools Survive State's Economic Crisis
SACRAMENTO — State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell today delivered his sixth annual State of Education address. As California grapples with an unprecedented budget shortfall and the nation's economic crisis, O'Connell made the case for school-funding reform and increased investment in public education as keys to California's economic recovery. O'Connell also urged educators and policymakers to continue the focus on closing the achievement gap even as schools prepare for staggering cuts in funding.
"The state of public education in California is precarious," O'Connell said. "Beyond the immediate crisis and even more alarming to me is the long-term future of our common education system. If we continue down the road we are on, our public schools and our state itself face certain, perhaps irreparable, damage."
"Downturns like this hit the most vulnerable among us the hardest," O'Connell said. "Sadly this comes after a long-term California focus on closing achievement gaps is now just starting to show modest progress. Let me be crystal clear, all of our progress as a high-expectation state is at-risk unless we commit ourselves now to being innovative, flexible, and focused as never before. It is time for us to prioritize and to focus on things we know are working to close the achievement gap and help all students succeed."
As an example of his call for thinking differently, O'Connell announced that he has ordered the California Department of Education (CDE) to immediately suspend all non-mandated on-site district monitoring visits. CDE typically conducts monitoring visits every year for a quarter of all districts in the state to ensure that fiscal and program requirements are being met. O'Connell has directed CDE staff to use the time and resources saved from not conducting on-site reviews to conduct a top-to-bottom review of the compliance monitoring system.
"I want to see a redesigned system that will focus the greatest attention on those schools that need the most assistance. It should be based on student achievement results, not bureaucratic agendas," O'Connell said, pledging to work with Senate President pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg, Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan to seek more flexibility in the way California monitors and requires state and federal funding to be spent.
O'Connell also has announced that he has suspended the California School Technology Survey, which will save many hours of work for teachers and administrators. In addition, he has directed CDE staff to make some data elements optional for the first year of reporting under California's new longitudinal data system known as CALPADS.
‘We cannot eliminate federal reporting, and we will not eliminate critical data needed to asses the achievement gaps — such as graduation or dropout rates. But I have asked my staff to find relief for school districts by making some data elements this first year optional, rather than required," he said. "We have worked long and hard to finally reach this juncture of having a longitudinal data system. While we must not turn back the clock on its implementation, we must be mindful of how much new work school districts can accomplish during these days of fiscal crisis."
To help school districts raise desperately needed funds, O'Connell announced his support for Senate Constitutional Amendment 6 by state Senator Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), to lower the threshold for parcel taxes from the current two-thirds majority to 55 percent. O'Connell said that legislative passage of this measure should be tied to any budget agreement that cuts funding to schools. He also announced that he is sponsoring a bill by Assembly member Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica) to place a major school facilities bond on the next statewide ballot.
"This measure will create jobs," O'Connell said. "It will help stimulate the construction of schools designed for 21st century learning as well as energy efficient high-performing "green" schools that will help tomorrow's students achieve and compete. This economy will recover, and school construction will help to revive it."
O'Connell noted that even with the current challenges, California schools are making progress in improving student achievement. He also provided an update on his plan for addressing the achievement gap, which he outlined in his State of Education speech last year. Please see the detailed update on the progress made on implementing the recommendations from O'Connell's statewide P-16 Council at P-16 Council Recommendations.
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Jack O'Connell — State Superintendent of Public Instruction
Communications Division, Room 5206, 916-319-0818, Fax 916-319-0100