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Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on March 31st, 2009, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 10, Issue 3 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 10, Issue 3

Budget woes and California's cuts: a history lesson

Local school districts are suffering under the state's financial struggles

By NICHOLAS WALTER


Past and future
Santa Maria High School social sciences teacher Caren Ray likely won’t have a teaching position next year. Statewide budget cuts are prompting unprecedented layoffs in education systems around California.
PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
Caren Ray teaches social sciences at Santa Maria High School. Throughout her career, she’s taught that subject at the advanced placement and honors level, as well as to learning-handicapped students. She’s currently working on her administrative credential. She’s on track to have her master’s degree completed in July.

She also recently received a pink slip. Ray was notified, along with 39 other Santa Maria Joint Union High School District temporary teachers (Ray lost her tenure when she took a several-year maternity leave for the birth of her children), that their contracts might not be renewed next year.

Pink slips are basically notices of intent to lay off an employee. School districts send them out when there won’t be a position for a probationary or tenured teacher to return to. In recent days, however, the term “pink slip” has also come to include notices sent to temporary teachers on a one-year contract whose contract won’t be renewed the following year.

Due to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s $4 billion in cuts to education, thousands of teachers and administrators across the state are getting those pink slips. The state is facing a wave of unprecedented layoffs. While the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District is faring better than some neighboring districts (the Lucia Mar Unified School District recently put 229 teachers on notice), the situation isn’t rosy for anyone.

And this situation will hold only if we get lucky and all the budget measures set for May’s special election pass, said Santa Maria Joint Union High School District Superintendent Jeff Hearn. The current budget—cuts and all—relies on anticipated revenue from six of the propositions on the ballot. If they fail, Hearn said, it’s back to square one.

“If things go south in May and the propositions on the ballot don’t pass … things are going to get a whole lot worse,” he said.


When Hugo Lara was going to high school in the 1960s, he said, California was ranked third or fourth in the nation on a per-pupil spending basis. Today, Lara—now superintendent of Guadalupe Union School District—said he’s facing the loss of eight teachers and one nurse out of a total of 58.

Staff reductions result from budget cuts, which themselves have become something of a byword for education in California, but how did the state get to this point? California is the world’s sixth largest economy, but now ranks 48th in the nation for per-capita student spending. What happened? There’s no one simple answer, but the beginnings of an explanation stretch back to the 1970s.

According to a study authored by Lawrence Picus, director of USC’s Rossier School of Education, the 1971 and 1976 Serrano vs. Priest Supreme Court decisions ruled that funding of California schools at the time violated the equal protection clause of the state constitution.

Under the system then in place, California’s public school financing structure at the time resulted in per-pupil expenditures that varied widely from district to district, depending on the local tax base. The wealthier a district was, the higher its property taxes, so the more money it had for its schools.

The resulting “economic chasm” led to the court’s decision that all “property wealth-related revenue differences” (that’s jargon for per-pupil spending from property taxes) from 
district to district be reduced to no more than $100 per 
student. With a per-pupil revenue difference of $654.23 between Baldwin Park and Beverly Hills as an example, 
the state Legislature stepped in to close the gap.

The Legislature limited the amount of money school 
districts could raise, with lower-income districts allowed greater spending growth than higher-income districts in order to “squeeze” general revenue per pupil closer together.

And squeeze they did. Adjusted for inflation, the figure today is $343 per student. In other words, there should be no more than a $343 difference in spending per student between a school district in Beverly Hills versus a district in South Central L.A.

Then came Proposition 13, passed in 1978. That bit of legislation reduced local property tax collections, limiting taxes to one percent of assessed value.

Perhaps the most telling impact of Proposition 13 was in education finance. Because revenue from property taxes—long the traditional source of funding for school districts—was slashed, control over education funding shifted from the local school districts to the state Legislature to make up the difference.

According to the Education Data Partnership website run by the California Department of Education—which provides fiscal, demographic, and performance data on California’s K-12 public schools—81 percent of school funding is controlled by the state. For those keeping score, the rest comes from federal funds, which account for 11 percent; local contributions of about six percent; and money from the state lottery, which covers about 1.5 percent.

It’s the way the state and the federal government tell local districts how they can spend the money that’s contributing to the current morass. Categorical funding is an issue every teacher and administrator has to deal with.

According to the Education Data Partnership website, about a third of the state’s education budget is earmarked for categorical aid. That’s money that comes with stipulations on how it’s to be spent. Special education, class size reduction, and Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) programs all fall in this category.

Add to all this a state governing structure that, according to USC’s Picus, “lacks clear lines of authority and structure.”

It’s not just old propositions, categorical funding, and a Byzantine state educational bureaucracy that’s part of our problem, said social sciences teacher Ray.

Along with state and federal control of education finance comes accountability for how that money is spent. Students’ performance and district rankings all currently have one thing in common: the standardized test.

Poor performance on the STAR test—which sets annual growth targets as part of No Child Left Behind—can have consequences ranging from loss of funding for free and reduced lunch programs (quite a hit at a school like Santa Maria High where 75 percent of the student population qualifies for the lunches) all the way through having the state step in and take control of the school.

There has to be accountability for how the money is spent, but by basing so much on a single measure—by “teaching to the test”—the system will hurt everyone in the long run, Ray said.

This current school system, she explained, is “specifically designed to turn out factory workers. They move from class to class, sit in rows, memorize material, and regurgitate it on state-mandated tests.”

Those state-mandated tests, Ray contends, contribute to a “single-measure” method of assessment that’s made it difficult to teach critical thinking skills, important in today’s information economy. She uses the Treaty of Versailles and web search tool Google to illustrate her point.

“Students can text 466453 (“google”), type in ‘d treaty of versailles’ and immediately get the definition and a weblink citing the source,” she said. “But the real value in knowing about the Treaty of Versailles is that it directly caused the conditions leading to the rise of Hitler in Germany.”

Critical thinking and the mindset that comes with that skill is vitally important to today’s students, 
Ray said.

“That’s why we study history. The date, or even what war it went with”—she gasped in mock shock at the thought of putting facts in context—“is meaningless without the higher level analysis that accompanies it.”

When asked where she thinks things have gone wrong, Ray is neither shy nor slow with her answer: criterion-referenced tests.

You might call them standardized tests.

“The way we are evaluating schools under No Child Left Behind is by the degree to which they turn out students who can demonstrate low-level recall skills,” she said.

 Ray agrees that parents and the public are “absolutely correct” to demand accountability and a quantifiable means of assessment in the education system, but added that doing so with a single measure—
criterion-referenced tests—isn’t providing an accurate portrait.

“It’s a bit like judging a quarterback on only yards passed, when in effect it’s pass attempts, pass completions, interceptions, etc. that go into a quarterback’s true measure,” she said.

In other words, a single yardstick isn’t the answer.

“We need multiple measures,” she explained. “Education is a complex thing, and we’re trying to measure it with a very simple instrument.”

Ray said the solution isn’t abolishing standards-based testing, but adding other criteria as well. And just like there’s no single explanation for how California got into its current mess, there’s no single answer here either. Those “other criteria” could include:

• Student portfolios. These would include examples of student work collected over time, such as writing samples, math assessments, and taped performances.

• Norm-referenced tests. Translation: grading on a curve. That means grading similar groups of students on the same tests.

• Application-level projects. Think community service as a graduation requirement, or something along the lines of a comprehensive graduation project, such as Cal Poly’s senior projects, which can take the form of self-guided research, presentations, or public portfolio displays or performances. 

The subjective nature of these assessments, Ray said, could be addressed with common grading rubrics.

“Advanced Placement tests use rubrics to fairly grade essay answers,” Ray said. “This is surely doable system-wide.”

Ray isn’t the only person to see a problem with standardized testing. Carol Karamitsos is president of the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District School Board. She acknowledges the need for an “objective measure of measurement,” but takes umbrage with how the testing is carried out.

“My problem with No Child Left Behind is that they will look at your sophomore class and say, ‘We want you to make this amount of progress.’ Rather than following that sophomore class and testing them their junior year, we test the next batch of sophomores.”

And comparing two different test groups, she said, is where the problem lies.

“You don’t measure success and improvement by testing two different groups,” she said. “It’s totally unscientific.”

It took a long time for California to get to the point where it is today, and nobody interviewed for this article is under the impression that the fix is going to be quick or easy. The shift required at the legislative level would be difficult, to say the least, said Guadalupe’s Lara.

“If there is a fix, first of all the Legislature would have to be very politically courageous to enact a major change, but it could also be political suicide,” he said, referring to a potential change to Proposition 13.

But throwing money at the problem isn’t going to fix things, Ray pointed out: The education system needs a comprehensive overhaul.

“Over time, we as a country are going to pay a hefty price for this short-sighted approach to educational reform,” she said. “We are in danger of losing our place as the world’s innovators.”

Contact Staff Writer Nicholas Walter at nwalter@santamariasun.com.










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