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California's Bad News Budget Threatens Education Reform

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I gave this testimony today before the Senate Appropriations Committee's Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies.

Chairman Harkin and subcommittee members, thank you for this invitation to testify on behalf of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the nation's second largest. I am Superintendent Ramon C. Cortines. Our enrollment of 618,000 students is larger than the total number of students who attend public school in 25 states. I also would like to take this opportunity to thank Chairman Harkin for his strong leadership and advocacy for education issues in the Congress. We stand together in the march toward an educated America, where all students are prepared and encouraged to read, write, think and speak as 21st Century learners who will become the next generation of leaders, teachers, doctors, engineers, writers, electricians, contractors, and business owners. That will not happen if our district and school districts across the nation in big cities, small towns and rural areas continue to hemorrhage teachers and other essential employees.

California's Bad News Budget

In California, public education is suffering one of the greatest threats in decades as funding from the State shrinks. Also threatened is an opportunity for great, systemic and long-lasting reform, always a challenge but even more so when the unpredictable budget cuts keep coming, month after month. The numerous and unyielding reductions in state funding have translated into the District's current deficit of $640 million and a projected deficit of $263 million in 2011-12. And, the news never improves. State Controller John Chiang recently announced that the upcoming fiscal years will be particularly difficult for our state because the temporary tax hikes approved by the legislature last year will expire; federal stimulus funds will be gone; and funds that the state borrowed from local governments will become due. Furthermore, the state's Legislative Analyst Office has projected that California will have a $20 billion deficit every year for the next five years.

It is not hyperbole to state that the Los Angeles Unified School District is again facing a budget crisis of the most unprecedented proportion. We have cut $1.5 billion from our budgets over the past two years. That's a lot of jobs.

Two thousand teachers gone last year and more are on the chopping block right now. Office workers, the first person you see at a school, disappearing. Our schools would be neither healthy nor beautiful without custodians whose numbers continue to dwindle. You name it. Teachers, administrators, counselors, school nurses, cafeteria workers, support personnel are part of an exodus forced by financial realities.

The District was forced last month to send out nearly 5,200 Reduction-in-Force (RIF) notices to teachers, principals and other school-based staff. Some, though certainly not all, will keep their jobs because the unions representing our teachers and administrators just agreed last week to shorten the school year by five days this June and next in order to save about $157 million and preserve class sizes that are already too high. Teachers are losing instructional time and taking a pay cut. Their sacrifices are certainly appreciated but alone do not close the budget gap.

Unfortunately, many more LAUSD employees will soon lose their jobs including thousands of non-instructional staff. Many of those lucky enough to keep their positions are subject to numerous unpaid furlough days, a steep reduction of work time and significant pay cuts during the next school year. I have worked with unions representing school police, office workers, bus drivers and others who are willing to work fewer days, and earn less so more can keep their jobs.

What Washington Can Do--Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

LAUSD is not the only district in California facing layoffs. Statewide, nearly 22,000 teachers have received notices of potential layoffs. According to the California Department of Education, more than 16,000 teachers lost their jobs last year, and roughly 10,000 classified or non-instructional school employees have met the same fate over the last couple of budget cycles. As you can see, public schools urgently need additional money now for the 2010-11 school year.

I applaud members of the House of Representatives for including an additional $23 billion in education aid through the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund in the Jobs for Main Street Act, which passed in December. I urge the Senate to support similar education jobs relief to save teachers and protect the futures of students. If Congress provides this $23 billion, it is estimated that LAUSD could receive approximately $250 million and save as many as 3,000 jobs.

What More Can Washington Do--More Money for Disadvantaged Students

In addition to an immediate infusion of fiscal relief to save jobs, Washington should provide additional investments in such critical education programs as Title I and Special Education. While the Fiscal Year (FY) 2011 budget proposed by President Obama gives education an overall increase of $3.5 billion, including a $3 billion (12%) increase for Elementary Secondary Education Act (ESEA), it freezes Title I, which will have serious negative consequences for the Los Angeles Unified School District. It will hurt at least 78 percent of our students, and more as the numbers who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch are increasing. It will be devastating to the District's 631 Title I schools.

And, Fully Fund Special Education

The FY 2011 budget also fails to increase the federal share of funding for Special Education, limiting it to only 17 percent of the costs. Congress must make good on the original promise to provide 40 percent. The Los Angeles Unified School District currently receives $135 million in federal funds for special education, which--if fully funded--should amount to $307 million, a shortage of $172 million. During the current school year, the District serves 82,751 special education students. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) mandates that each special education student receives an Individualized Education Plan, which determines required supports and services regardless of costs that continue to rise. Add to that financial burden, the number of special education students continues to rise. This unfunded federal requirement forces the diversion of locally contributed general fund dollars from the instruction of the more than 500,000 LAUSD students who do not have disabilities.

Stop the State from Hijacking Funds Washington Intended for Public Education

We appreciate the assistance our schools have already received from Washington. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) provided critical help during the current school year in the form of additional aid for Title I of the Elementary Secondary Education Act (ESEA), IDEA, and through the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund (SFSF). The funds LAUSD received allowed us to save approximately 7,000 jobs of teachers and other employees.

With the help of $359 million from the SFSF, LAUSD was able to save more than 4,600 jobs last year. The ARRA Title I and IDEA money helped us save another 2,143 jobs. In the case of the Title I dollars, neither I nor anyone else at headquarters dictated how they would be spent. That money was pushed out to schools to decide how the money could be best spent on that individual campus.

Even more jobs could have been saved, but unfortunately, in order to shore up the state's depleting resources, the California Department of Finance kept millions in SFSF that this District had counted on to use this coming year to help fill our $640 million budget gap. That is certainly not what Washington intended. Given the state's penchant for hijacking dollars earmarked for public education to address its own budget shortfalls, those funds should flow directly to local school districts to protect our students, schools and jobs.

The Uniqueness of the Los Angeles Unified School District

As head of LAUSD, I lead the nation's second largest district in the nation. At least 78 percent of our students qualify for either free or reduced-priced lunches. More than 74 percent of our students are Latino, and almost 11 percent are African American. More than 40 percent are English Language Learners, a reflection of the close to 100 languages and dialects spoken in their homes. The District is the second largest employer in Los Angeles County, with 72,000 employees who serve more than 891 K-12 schools. Our students come from a 710-square mile area that in addition to Los Angeles includes dozens of cities and unincorporated neighborhoods located in the surrounding Los Angeles County. In short--our size, our diversity, our mission and our challenges are great.

Innovation

In September, 37 schools--including some brand-new campuses and some of our existing lowest-performing schools--will be operated by nonprofit groups, collaborative teams of teachers and administrators and charter schools under the new and competitive Public School Choice Initiative. Speaking of charters schools, no District in this nation has more than LAUSD. Add to these multiple routes to success for our students, partnership and pilot schools. If outsiders can do a better job of educating any of our students, we welcome their help, and we want to learn from their successes. If insiders can do a better job, including teams from the teachers' union and the bargaining unit representing principals and administrators, they are also welcome to help improve our schools.

We also welcome the involvement of more parents. An annual School Report Card intended for parents and guardians chronicles strengths and weaknesses of each campus ranging from academic achievement to attendance, while also tracking failures and soaring improvement in categories such as parental involvement per school.

Not Satisfied with Chronic Failure

To address the specific needs of a low-performing school, I ordered the turnaround of one high School under the No Child Left Behind Act. A new principal is already on-board and teachers, including veterans and newcomers, are applying for the opportunity to boost student achievement. That is just the beginning.

At Belmont High School, teachers, students and the community overcame decades of struggle and overcrowded classrooms to raise its state standardized Academic Performance Index (API) score by 78 points last year. Belmont High is part of the Belmont Zone of Choice where all area students select between the historic campus and three newly-built high schools where students are educated through Small Learning Communities and pilot schools focused on various careers and themes.

Progress

LAUSD employs more than 30,000 teachers ranging from miracle workers and outstanding instructors to some who are not making the grade. Help is provided through professional development and Peer Assistance Review a collaborative program with the teachers union. In addition, I have toughened a flawed evaluation process that too often allowed all but the weakest teachers to pass probation and get tenure, which translates into a job for life. Principals are being held accountable for weeding out non-permanent teachers who are neither a benefit to students nor schools. Probationary teachers who received "needs improvement" in one or more categories in their last evaluation are being scrutinized as are 175 permanent teachers who received an overall "below standard" evaluation. Teachers who have received sub-par evaluations for the past two school years, will not get a third chance. As a result, in June, more ineffective permanent and probationary teachers will be ushered out of this District--so better teachers will not be laid off.

Conclusion

Clearly the Los Angeles Unified School District needs your help. Please make public education your highest priority and fund this historic opportunity for reform. Teacher and other school-related jobs should be viewed as an investment in America's present and future. Every job lost adds to the unemployment rate and the housing foreclosure crisis--but in this case, it also hinders the education of hundreds of thousands of students in the Los Angeles area and across the nation. Education-related jobs directly impact our students' futures in ways that can only be partially quantified at this time. The loss of instructional days, class offerings, enrichment courses, Arts programming, and other vital services may negatively affect our students for generations.

Again, I would like to thank Senator Harkin for the opportunity to testify today, and for his strong and continuing leadership for education.