Students Bearing the Brunt of Cutbacks in California

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SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. -- The budget crisis gripping California is forcing most city and county governments across the state to squeeze spending by local departments -- and unfortunately for public school students, the education sector has become a number-one target for cutbacks.

State funding cuts were the main topic during a panel discussion of budget experts and ethnic media reporters, who gathered last week at New America Media in San Francisco to talk about how the economic recession is playing out in California classrooms.

A chief concern voiced at the briefing was how cuts to education have influenced student-teacher relationships.

Anna Lima, a third-grade teacher at Acorn Woodland Elementary in Oakland, Calif., nearly lost her job because of the budget cuts and has seen first-hand how the cuts have affected school moral.
“Hearing from our principal that $150,000 was going to be cut from the budget and that teachers were going to be pink-slipped not only impacted the moral of the teachers at the school, but the students as well,” Lima said.

Leroy Gaines, Lima’s principal at Acorn, said allowing time for a strong bond between student and teacher to develop is an important first step in motivating a student to do well in school.

“[The children] want to know that there are folks who care about them,” he said. “In order to do a great job of teaching, we need to make sure we maintain some consistency. When teachers leave, that sense of abandonment -- and for many of our students unfortunately it has happened pretty often in their lives -- that abandonment makes [the student] lose faith in the system.”

Acorn, like so many other public schools in California, has had to survive in the face of serious budget woes, including a recent cut of 10 percent from its annual operating budget. The school’s committed volunteer base and small pool of private funding hasn’t been enough to close the gap, said Gaines.
“Anything that comes down the line, even if it’s $5,000, has a big impact, especially if it is a small school,” he said.

In addition to the loss of teachers in the classroom, budget cuts have caused a reduction in school spending per individual student that is jarring.

Jean Ross, executive director of the California Budget Project, reported that the state spent $1,000 less per student (down from $8,500 in the 2008-09 school year) to $7,500 currently.

Louis Freedberg, executive director of EdSource, a nonpartisan organization focused on education policy, expressed concern over California’s willingness to reduce the number of school days in order to save money, a move he said will place the state’s students at a striking disadvantage compared to their counterparts in other countries. California public schools currently hold class 180 days per year, compared to 200-225 days of instruction in other countries. South Korea, for example, has 220 days of school instruction per year. Switzerland has 228, and students receive 200 class days per year in Italy and the Netherlands. Cost-cutting proposals currently being considered could slice the number of school days in California even further.

Freedberg did concede, however, that having the option to reduce the number of school days offers educators and policymakers a less painful short-term alternative to the wholesale firing of teachers and cutting of vital school programs.

“The State of California spends about $200 million every day for its public schools, [so] if you eliminate one day that’s $200 million in savings. Los Angeles is [already] saving about $150 million by eliminating one week [of instruction]. Maybe if teachers are faced with one week less school, as opposed to layoffs, that may make some sense.”

While the choices facing the State of California are less than ideal, the panel of budget experts encouraged ethnic media reporters to venture into schools and classrooms in order to give their communities a tangible sense of how local budget decisions will be impacting their children in the coming school year.