It’s an unpleasant topic. But California needs to have a debate about the best way to cut school budgets.
Yes, we shouldn’t be cutting schools. But such cuts are inevitable, with projections showing $20 billion annual deficits at the state level for at least the next four years. More bad news: It’s inescapable that teacher salaries and benefits will be the target of cuts. Salaries and benefits are by far the biggest expense in education. And virtually the entire increase in California spending on education over the past decade has gone to teacher’s salaries, which are among the highest in the nation.
So how best to cut? The goal should be to reduce the impact on students. Instead, cuts have been targeted to reduce the impact on teachers.
Exhibit A is the Los Angeles Unified School District, where administrators and the teachers’ union agreed early this month on a plan to save money by shortening the length of the school year. This agreement has been celebrated for preventing thousands of teacher layoffs. But to save teachers’ jobs, students will be hurt. The agreement means five fewer instruction days during the current school year (the Friday before Memorial Day will be an off day, and school will close four days earlier for summer vacation) and seven fewer days next year.
Perhaps that doesn’t seem like much, but educational studies find that giving students more time – and more useful time – in the classroom is crucial to improving education. The secret of most great educational success stories – from the late East LA teacher Jaime Escalante to charter schools in inner cities – is not teaching magic but the fact that these teachers and schools almost always provide their students with extra time in the classrooms, often on weekends. In response to research and experience, states from New Mexico to Massachusetts are trying to lengthen school days and school years. LA is going the other way.
What’s the alternative to cutting time? Layoffs have been used in dozens of California districts. They are penny-wise and pound-foolish, since the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the education, training and development of laid-off teachers. Since union seniority rules protect older teachers, younger teachers – who will be needed to replace those older teachers before too long – are the ones being laid off. In these ways, layoffs merely postpone costs. School districts that use them are eating their seed corn.
No, the best solution is the most difficult to achieve: demanding that teachers work the same hours for less money. This is what many of us in the private sector, including the media, are accepting. It’s what these times require of our teachers, if students are their top priority.