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Supervisors Opinion

New Money and Old Challenges in the Golden State

District leader reviews funding options after Proposition 30.
california money

When California voters passed Proposition 30 last November, known as the “Temporary Taxes to Fund Education” bill, the nation waited to see what would happen in a bellwether state that often signals coming trends in other states. Proposition 30 was passed through a broad coalition of teachers, labor, business, and law enforcement, and with support from the governor and major funding from the California Teachers Association.

The measure increases personal income taxes on high-income taxpayers for seven years, and sales taxes for four years, to be used for education. The approval also put school issues back at the forefront of state policy, and as Kathryn Baron, co-writer for Thoughts on Public Education (TOP- Ed), a forum on education policy wrote in EdWatch 2012: The next budget bill, “California may finally get the ‘Year of Education’ that former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger promised for 2008, which, ironically, is now remembered as the year school funding began its descent to the lower depths.”

The bellwether state gives us hope that school funding, decimated during the fiscal crisis of the past five years, will rebound nationwide as the economy recovers. But the challenge for district leaders everywhere is to rebuild systems in a sensible and sustainable manner, with heightened expectations from the public and employee groups. Can California schools avoid falling back into the old habits that made the fiscal crisis worse?

Competing Demands

Proposition 30 was well received in California, despite the fact that structural problems in school funding remain. Further, it commits to funding sources based on sales and income tax, rather than the more stable structure provided by property taxes, so the increases will be relatively short-lived. Thus, the boom or bust cycle continues.

But Gov. Jerry Brown is seizing the new funding opportunities to make changes, such as simplifying the state’s special programs with a streamlined model. He seeks to radically change how funding is distributed to schools through his proposed Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), that theoretically determines the cost of education for all K12 students and the additional funds necessary for students at risk. It is a weighted formula that is a spending plan as opposed to a revenue plan—the income stream remains the same—but it is a step in the right direction.

For the first time in many years, schools will receive additional money, and this brings new challenges for school leaders to avoid past mistakes. Many are simply looking to restore provisions that were cut during the fiscal crisis, such as class sizes that increased significantly in many towns. The popular Class Size Reduction program that set class sizes at 20:1 in grades K through 3 is still on the books, though on life support, and classes in most districts swelled to 32 and 33. Gov. Brown’s goal is to get the ratios down to at least 24:1.

School calendars were also reduced to save money, usually through instituting furlough days to save on salaries, which effectively cut instructional days. Employees will therefore seek immediate salary enhancements, and unions will support those requests, given the immense effort on the part of labor groups to pass Proposition 30. The tensions among competing interests in schools will play out in California and across the country.

Weighing the Alternatives

The major school funding options to consider include:

Restoring Instructional Programs:

Instructional programs took a huge hit during the crisis. So adding more teachers, and in effect, decreasing class sizes would be a welcome relief. However, districts can also use paraprofessionals to provide support for existing teachers to meet the same student outcomes. Either way, teachers need relief. And students deserve more attention and more learning tools like technology.

Restoring Arts, Music, and Sports:

While many districts managed to keep arts and sports programs, offerings decreased and options diminished for students. Programs were also kept alive by parent donations, which may not be viable long-term.

Restoring School Days:

Many districts shortened the school year to ride out the storm during the crisis, and those lost days should be restored. In fact, many districts may want to add days.

Reinstating Intervention Programs:

Many additional resources that were needed by at-risk students were cut. While it is true that resources often flowed to the neediest, many students still fell through the cracks.

Improving School Facilities:

Many districts deferred maintenance on school buildings, many of which are in need of repair, to keep the doors open given fiscal constraints. And now there is the added incentive to implement green strategies to make buildings more environmentally friendly and energy-effcient. Gov. Brown identified this as a potential area to boost the economy while helping schools, and will include $500 million in new spending on energy effciency in his budget proposal for 2013-2014. According to Capital staffers, much of that money is expected to be earmarked for retrofitting schools to help lower utility bills.

Providing Salary Increases:

There is just no way around this as employees have seen a real decrease, or at best, a stagnation of salaries over the past five years. However, multiple alternatives do exist.

They include the following:

Increasing salary schedules. Most employees and labor groups will likely favor a straight percentage increase to an existing salary schedule. And the salary schedule pays teachers according to levels of academic achievement and experience. It assumes that the most experienced and highly qualified teachers are the most productive and effect the greatest student achievement. It is expensive as it presumes on-going funding with annual pay raises.

One time end-of-year bonus. This is attractive, as it does not commit to ongoing funding, but rather recognizes employees and rewards them when the money is available. It is not favored by all, as some labor groups do not like to engage in ongoing negotiations. But in reality, they do so anyway.

Health benefits. Contributions by districts to health benefits in effect are salary increases.

Extending the school year. Adding days, whether instructional days or staff development days, functions as a pay increase as teachers receive payment for the extra days. In many places, this would restore staff development days lost to budget cuts. Education Secretary Arne Duncan advocates a longer school year, as noted by a three-year pilot project at 40 schools in Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and Tennessee, adding 300 hours of instruction for nearly 20,000 students.

Incentives for recruiting hard-tofind
teachers. Many teacher preparation programs reported a drastic drop in enrollment during the economic crisis. This will lead to a teacher shortage in the near future, as reported in the Associated Press. It will be increasingly diffcult to attract top-quality teachers in STEM areas, and may require financial incentives to attract quality candidates. These may include signing bonuses, college loan reduction programs, or enhanced placement on existing salary schedules.

Revamping teacher evaluation
systems. Most educators recognize that teacher evaluation systems need to be revised. There is increasing pressure to do so, but it will take resources and additional funding to implement real change. This might be the time to be creative as was true in San Jose, Calif., and Newark,N.J., where administrators linked satisfactory evaluations and pay increases, and used multiple measures and peer panels to make those determinations. With added funding, this is a time to take a fresh look at restoring and reshaping educational goals to better serve the needs of students. District leaders might consider, for example, a career ladder that provides teachers with opportunities to assume leadership roles that do not require becoming administrators, with commensurate compensation. Such opportunities would offer incentives for teacher-leaders that reward expertise and classroom accomplishment for content specialists, master teachers, and peer mentors. The ladder could replace or augment current salary schedules that lock in salary raises and freezes for all teachers, regardless of performance. The nation will be watching how the new funding measures are implemented in the Golden State. DA 

Eamonn O’Donovan is assistant superintendent of human resources in the Irvine (Calif.) Unified School District.