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California Budget Cuts Slam Higher Education, Almost Spare K-12

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Gov. Jerry Brown speaks about shortfalls in the state budget during a news conference at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2011. Brown said that California needs to make about $1 billion in midyear cuts to schools and social services, as the state's revenues fell about $2.2 billion below the assumptions included in the budget he signed last summer.(AP Photo/Steve Yeater)
Gov. Jerry Brown speaks about shortfalls in the state budget during a news conference at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2011. Brown said that California needs to make about $1 billion in midyear cuts to schools and social services, as the state's revenues fell about $2.2 billion below the assumptions included in the budget he signed last summer.(AP Photo/Steve Yeater)

This story comes to us courtesy of Silicon Valley Education Foundation's Thoughts On Public Education blog, TopEd.org.

Midyear budget cuts hit California like a tornado on Tuesday, leaving public schools with less damage than anticipated while bearing down on state colleges and universities with full force. Gov. Jerry Brown announced that although state revenues rose, it wasn't enough to stave off the so-called "trigger cuts" built into this year's budget.

With revenues more than $2.2 billion below projections, Brown said the state has to cut another $1 billion in spending. Of that, about $328 million will come from K-12 education, which is significantly less than the $1.4 billion worst-case scenario.

There was no such reprieve for higher education; the University of California, California State University, and the state's community college system will each lose an additional $100 million in the new year.

I want to invoke a Latin phrase here," said Brown at a press conference in the Capitol. "Nemo dat [quod] non habet; it means no man gives what he does not have. The state cannot give what it does not have."

Several times during his comments, the governor acknowledged that he's sensitive to the hardships the reductions will cause, but said the state has to live within its means or it will end up like Greece, Italy, and Spain, countries that overspent to excess and are now unable to climb out of the holes they dug.

HIGHER ED, HIGHER FEES

His argument didn't sway critics, especially at the three college and university systems, which have already lost billions of dollars in state funding in recent years.

"The governor is the Grinch that stole Christmas," said Foothill-De Anza Community College District Chancellor Linda Thor, only half jokingly. Although she knew the cuts were a strong probability, Thor said it still means another $2.8 million from her district ($3.3 million if you count the lack of cost-of-living increases), and that's on top of $24.6 million in cuts over the last three years.

For the rest of the academic year Foothill-De Anza will dig into a rainy day fund established during better times, but that's running low after several years of stormy economic weather.

What's more, starting this summer student fees will jump from $36 a credit to $46. That's far below the rest of the nation, but it's still nearly $1400 a year for a full-time student, and community colleges have a high percentage of low-income students.

De Anza College awarded financial aid to more students in the current fall quarter than it did to all students in the entire 2010-11 academic year.

California State University students will also be paying more. Last month the Board of Trustees approved a 10 percent fee hike that will kick in next fall. CSU has already raised fees by 29 percent over the past year and a half.

"It is disheartening to say the least when your budget is cut by an initial $650 million, but to face an additional $100 million reduction midyear makes things extremely challenging," said CSU Chancellor Charles Reed in a statement on the university's website.

CUTS PUT BRAKES ON SCHOOL BUSES

Funding cuts for K-12 schools under Proposition 98 are a bit fuzzier. The governor and legislative leaders had predicted that revenues would rise $4 billion over the May revise amount. If revenues were down by the full $4 billion, public schools would have been cut $1.4 billion, or about 3 percent. Since revenues weren't that low, schools will see a midyear total cut of $328 million, or about 0.7 percent. That's an average of $55 per student.

But that's not exactly how the governor presented it. Brown broke the reductions into two parts: First, a $79.6 million reduction in the basic school funding, called revenue limit funding. That's the equivalent of about a half-day of school cut, instead of a potential elimination of a whole week.

The second cut is more substantial; a $248 million reduction in home-to-school transportation, in other words, school buses. Taken together, they amount to an average of $55 per student.

However, because school transportation funding primarily affects rural and low-income urban districts ­– and uses an outdated, quirky formula ­– the impact will vary widely among districts, from less than $7 per student in the 19,000-student Antioch Unified, to a whopping $638 per student in the 744-student Southern Humboldt Joint Unified.

Los Angeles Unified, the state's largest district, which will be absorbing the biggest transportation hit of $38.6 million – $59 per student – announced that it plans to file suit today to halt the cut. The district contends that the cuts would violate a 30-year-old court mandate resulting from a desegregation lawsuit that set up magnet schools and a school choice program; 35,000 students in the district now take buses. At the same time, the alternative – cutting additional services to the classroom ­– would violate the state's constitutional duty to provide equal educational opportunities.

"LAUSD cannot withstand further budget cuts without adversely impacting the educational benefits offered to its students," Superintendent John Deasy said in a statement. "We stand with our students to say enough is enough."

Transportation funding has huge disparities, because it's based on a decades-old allocation formula that punishes districts that have grown rapidly. California is last in the nation in terms of the proportion of students bused to school: 14 percent, according to Stephen Rhoads, a lobbyist with Strategic Education Services in Sacramento who has focused on the transportation issue.

In his press conference, Brown characterized the transportation cut as flexible, giving districts the ability to backfill bus service by making cuts in other areas. But it's not as easy as that. Rob Ball, associate superintendent of Twin Rivers Unified in Sacramento County, said that the district already reduced bus routes as much as it could, with some students now walking three miles to a bus stop. Buses also transport high school students through rough neighborhoods in North Sacramento to Grant High; eliminate transportation, and fewer students would show up to school, reducing the state's tuition reimbursements. This year, said Ball, the district will take the $1 million transportation cut out of its reserves.

Rhoads said that heavily affected districts will lobby legislators to combine the transportation and revenue limit cuts, so that the pain is spread evenly among districts. The Education Coalition, representing the PTA and teachers, administrators, and school boards associations, expressed sympathy. The transportation cut will devastate transportation services and hit poor and neediest students the hardest, it said in a statement. "It will also put at risk the safety and lives of students who will be forced to walk on unsafe roads and through dangerous conditions."

Kathryn Baron is a co-writer of TOPed.org, a blog on California education policy. John Fensterwald is the editor and co-writer of TOPed.org. Follow him on Twitter (@jfenster). Read more of their work and more at www.toped.org.

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