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California Budget Leaves Schools With Few Options

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Almost a month after its passage, school districts across California are still trying to make sense of -- and fight against -- an education budget that appears to ignore the state's fiscal reality.

"California has become a national disgrace when it comes to funding public education. It's deplorable," San Francisco schools chief Carlos Garcia told The Huffington Post. "We've cut everything."

San Francisco made $113 million in education cuts last year and faces an additional $20 million in further cuts this year. "It's inadequate to fund an educational system," Garcia said.

San Francisco schools have already suffered because of California’s poor economy, Garcia said, noting he has had to eliminate the district's curriculum development office and some training programs due to budget cuts. To save money, the district cut the school year by four days last year, and is cutting four more this year, leaving students with only 176 days in the classroom.

"This year, I started my 37th year in education," Garcia said. "I've never seen it worse than what it is now in terms of funding. ...The proof is in the pudding: we're devaluing students by giving them so little for their education."

The fiscal situation has dampened Garcia's spirits. He ended a recent conversation about San Francisco's education budget by saying, "Thanks for the therapy."

School districts across California are grappling with AB 114, which suspends several education statutes for the remainder of the year. While the state teachers' union and the legislators who voted for AB 114 say it will stabilize classrooms as California comes to grips with its finances, critics say Democratic legislators are falling prey to the California Teachers Association and its deep pockets.

California's Democrat-controlled state legislature passed AB 114 in June. The law prevents school boards from laying off teachers or cutting programs in the interest of balancing their budgets, measures school districts would ordinarily be able to take during the summer in anticipation of the coming school year.

It also eliminates the requirement that districts show they can meet their financial obligations for the upcoming three years -- a measure supporters say will prevent districts from over-cutting in advance.

AB 114 relies on optimistic budget projections that critics say might fall short come December, when insufficient funds could require a slew of last-second cuts.

The law does offer one solution for districts looking to save money: They may implement up to seven furlough days for teachers -- effectively shortening the school year -- but any furloughs would have to be negotiated with teachers' unions.

AB 114 has prompted criticism from many Californians, who complained that the 100-page bill was made available to the entire state Assembly just 20 minutes before its late-night passage, and only released to the public after the fact. The Los Angeles Times editorial board deemed it a "ham-fisted yet pandering" law passed to "appease the California Teachers Association," requiring schools to "operate on air and hope."

The law comes as California deals with longstanding budget shortcomings due to the economic crisis and diminishing tax revenues. Dean Vogel, CTA's president, noted these shortcomings have led California to cut 40,000 teaching positions over the last four years and reduce education funding by $20 billion over the last three.

AB 114, Vogel said, will provide stability for schools by blocking school boards from firing teachers over the summer.

"At least kids are going to come in to school and see that same familiar face," he told HuffPost.

The law, Vogel said, originated from CTA "telling policymakers in the final days in the budget negotiations that if we can have anything to help soften the blow [of education cuts], it would help stabilize the school environment for just a year."

Vogel said that for the budget projections to be accurate, state revenue needs to increase by $700 million by mid-December, and he thinks the likelihood of that happening is "very great."

That's not the full story, according to Larry Sand, who runs the California Teachers Empowerment Network, a group "for teachers who don't tow the union line," as he describes it.

The union is "spinning it to say it saves teachers' jobs and gives them stability," Sand said. "Maybe for five minutes. But once the bills are due, the schools will be practically bankrupt."

Terry Moe, a Stanford professor who this year released a book about the role of teachers unions in politics, is likewise having none of the union’s stability argument.

"School districts need to have the freedom to allocate their money in the best ways they can," Moe said. "This just ties their hands to save jobs. It puts a premium on that one thing."

Others are concerned that the only way the law offers for financially struggling districts to save money -- shortening the school year -- will hurt student outcomes.

"It's difficult enough to get through all the material in the regular school year," said Lance Izumi, the senior director of education studies at the Pacific Research Institute. "Shortening it by even more is going to be very detrimental for students."

In San Franciscio, Garcia says even with the ability to save money with furlough days, the district is still financially stuck. San Francisco Unified relies on state funds for about 60 percent of its revenue.

"This budget … projects that there will be an increase in funding. If that doesn’t take place, we're supposed to, in the middle of the year, cut even more money," Garcia said. "That's pretty close to impossible. You've contracted everybody for the school year by then -- and there's nothing left to cut."

The California School Boards Association is pushing back against AB 114, said Rick Pratt, its assistant executive director for governmental relations. His group's lobbyists are currently engaged in negotiations with legislators to alter parts of the already-passed bill "to get the language modified as much as possible," he said.

"We're not going to get it repealed, since a deal was struck between the governor and the union," Pratt said. "But we're checking to see if there are any provisions that give districts more flexibility."

Garcia said he thinks AB 114 might end up in court.

"Some people would claim ... that seems like an unfunded mandate by the state," he said. "There will be some legal challenges to that question. If you're not allowed to have some flexibility on laying off people, you could bankrupt a school district."

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