By Frank Wells
A study released in March by the University of California, Los Angeles, supports CTA’s declaration of a “state of emergency” for public schools. For the past several years UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education and Access (IDEA), in partnership with UC/ACCORD, has produced an annual report on learning conditions and educational outcomes in California’s public schools. Last year’s report highlighted how the major economic downturn has further damaged the state’s already weakened educational infrastructure. This year’s report, “Free Fall: Educational Opportunities in 2011,” focuses on high schools and concludes that things have only gotten worse.
Based on a survey of nearly a quarter of the state’s high school principals, and on follow-up interviews with 78 of them, the report’s core findings include:
- California high schools are providing less time, attention and quality programs. As a consequence, student engagement, achievement, and progress to graduation and college are suffering.
- School reform has all but sputtered to a halt due to staff cutbacks and the elimination of time for professional development.
- Even as declining budgets impact high schools across the state, inequality is growing across and within schools.
- California’s high schools face growing demands from families experiencing economic crisis that point to the interrelationship of California’s education and social welfare budgets.
Schools have seen their staffing, supply, and other budgets decimated. The report quotes a Los Angeles County principal: “In the last two years, because of the fiscal crisis and budget cuts, I am down eight teachers. … I’m down six counselors. I’m down 10 clerks. I’ve lost all my security. And I almost lost my nurse and my school psychologist. … They gave us a new budgeting thing this year, and it allowed me to flex some things. It wasn’t enough, though. And so I drained the instructional materials account to zero — zero — to keep people working.”
The report cites statistics that California ranks 43rd in per-pupil expenditures and 49th in student-counselor ratio. And it ranks dead last in secondary student-teacher ratio. “We’re at or near the bottom compared to other states, which are also slashing their education budgets,” says CTA President David A. Sanchez. “California was behind when the economy was good; now it’s just that much worse.”
While nearly all California public schools are suffering greatly, the report concludes, the impact on students has not been equal. In some cases, more affluent communities have been able to volunteer extra funding to protect local school programs. High-poverty schools raise only $1 for every $20 raised by more middle-class or affluent schools.
This disparity is hurting students who need the most extra help. Without additional community support, higher-poverty schools are the first to cut field trips, athletics, art and music supplies, and even books. And despite research that points to the benefit of extending learning time to closing the achievement gap, budget cuts have pushed schools in the opposite direction. Half the principals interviewed said they had reduced their school year since 2008, and 65 percent had cut back or eliminated summer school.
Students suffer in more indirect ways as well. Teachers have less time to improve their skills. Almost all the principals surveyed said budget cuts have stalled reform and professional development. Teachers have less access to outside experts, less time for collaboration, and less time to learn from veteran teachers.
The report notes that students are facing a double economic hit, both at school and at home. While the economy and California’s unfair tax structure have led to massive education cuts, the impact of the economy on their families’ incomes has further jeopardized their education. Underemployment makes it harder for families to pay for college. And even if they can afford it, prospective students are faced with more cutbacks at California’s universities and colleges. Seventy-eight percent of the principals surveyed blamed the economy for fewer graduating seniors moving on to four-year universities and colleges.
The report praises the superhuman efforts of many principals and teachers who work tirelessly and do the best they can with what they have. It notes that many work 12- or even 15-hour days. But the report concludes that “relying on heroic acts creates a patchwork of low and high quality educational services. At worst, it leads to frustration, resentment, and burnout.” Instead, researchers call for efforts to stem California’s educational free fall, starting with the need for state residents to understand the connection between opportunities, learning, and budgets.
The full report can be accessed online at edopp.org.
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