State Budgets Squeeze Schools

California's budget is in crisis and the Los Angeles Unified School District has already laid off thousands of teachers. Host Michel Martin talks with Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute about the major budget cuts many states and school districts will face in the coming fiscal year. Also joining the conversation is Los Angeles Times education reporter Jason Song to discuss the impact of education budget cuts in Los Angeles.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we'll pay a visit to our beauty shop to chat about some of the stories burning up the blogosphere this week, including the tears heard around the world, or at least around the U.S. by soon-to-be speaker of the House, John Boehner. That was from his appearance on "60 Minutes." We'll talk about that a little later.

But, first, to sorrows in education. Yesterday, California's governor-elect, Jerry Brown, told education leaders in Los Angeles to, quote, "fasten your seatbelts" for jarring cuts to schools.

JERRY BROWN: We're going to do everything we can to minimize cuts to public schools. I can't promise you there won't be more cuts, 'cause there will be.

MARTIN: Now, Los Angeles is just one city among many that are facing huge cuts in state funding in education. Traditionally, states have avoided slashing education budgets, but as budget crises deepen, that now seems inevitable in some cities. California is facing a huge $28 billion gap. Forty percent of its budget goes to education. Now, that's on top of the $21 billion that legislators have already cut.

The Los Angeles Unified School District has already lost some 3,000 teachers, nurses and librarians over the past two years. And as you heard from Governor- elect Brown, another wave of cuts is expected in the first quarter of next year.

MARTIN: How Schools and Districts Can Save Money While Serving Students Best." He's the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. That is a conservative research and policy institute right here in Washington, D.C. He's here with us from his offices there.

Also with us, Los Angeles Times education reporter Jason Song, who's been following this story closely. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

FREDERICK HESS: My pleasure.

JASON SONG: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Jason, if you would just start, and put these cuts into context. 3,000 people sounds like a lot of people, but Los Angeles is also a very large school district. So if you could just put this in context for us how big of an impact have these cuts had. What percentage of the teaching force or this whole labor force has this been?

SONG: Well, there are about 45,000 certificated employees. In other words, teachers, librarians, counselors, et cetera, in the district. So that can give you kind of some idea of the baseline that they're working with here. I mean, on the ground, I mean, when I've done my reporting, I have seen, you know, that the school year's been shortened, that the school district has had to have furlough days. Librarians have been cut. Nurses have been cut. So, really, I think it's had a pretty profound effect in the classroom and, you know, in schools throughout the city.

MARTIN: Well, what does that mean, though, for librarians and nurses to be cut? Does it mean that kids are not able to use the libraries now? Or they can use them less often for more limited hours. Things like that. Do some schools not have a school nurse at all? Or is the school nurse only available a couple of hours a day?

SONG: Sure. I mean it varies from campus to campus. But like you were saying, I mean, I think in general schools have tried not to do away with programs entirely, but they've had to pare back, you know, quite a bit. I mean one thing that I think had a pretty profound effect, citywide, was the school district cut the summer school program, for the most part.

And so a lot of parents were really caught by surprise. A, because they wanted their kids to go to school. And, B, if there's not that option, you know, who is going to watch my children during those summer months?

MARTIN: And what are they talking about for next year? I understand that this is still in flux.

SONG: Yes. It is still in flux. I mean I think we'll have a better idea of, you know, exactly what the picture is going to be like starting next month or - and then it'll really kind of - the rubber will meet the road in March. But some figures have been kicked around that suggests up to 5,000 more jobs could be cut. Federal stimulus money will probably dry up this year. So that's going to be another burden for the school district to deal with.

MARTIN: OK. Rick Hess, let's start with you. Now, I understand that you have an opinion about how much spending is really necessary in the schools, and I do want to hear that opinion, but I'd like you to just give us the facts first, if you would.

HESS: Sure.

MARTIN: And just tell us, how typical is the California experience? I think it's well known that California's facing a budget crisis, but I'd like to know more broadly around the country, are other school districts facing these challenges and why?

HESS: Sure. Absolutely. The California experience is, I think, more severe. In many ways, California is regarded as a poster child for the dangers of fiscal imbalance. But Texas, right now, is looking at a two-year deficit that's anticipated to be $10 to $15 billion or greater. Ohio's looking at a two-year deficit of $8 to $12 billion or higher. This is really more typical than not across the country.

School districts have become used, over the last three generations, really, 75 years, we've increased per-people-spending across the country every single year. So school districts have tended to operate in an environment where each year you do what you did the year before and then you try to do some more on top of that. So, our superintendents, our school leaders are not used to an environment where they're being asked to decide what are you going to cut or what are you going to do less of.

And the reality is school district budgets come from three sources. About 10 percent of school spending comes from the federal government. The stimulus bill last, in 2009, has sent about $60 to $70 billion to help states and districts bridge the gap, due to the recession. Those dollars are drying up. About 45 percent of school dollars come from the state. And we've just noted that many of those dollars are being dialed back. And about 45 percent of school spending comes locally.

Much of that derives from property taxes in most states, but obviously the deflation of property values means that those revenue collections are not only falling now, but are likely to continue falling through 2014 or 2015.

MARTIN: If you're just tuning in, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the effects of the difficult economic times on the schools. Last week talked about the cuts that some communities are making in their police and fire services. Today we decided to talk about education funding and we're speaking with Los Angeles Times reporter Jason Song, who covers education for the L.A. Times, and, also, Frederick Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. That's a conservative research and policy institute.

So, Jason, your reporting has suggested that one of the consequences of these cutbacks is that seniority is generally used to determine who loses a job in a time of austerity. And your reporting has suggested that some of the more effective teachers are the ones who have lost their job. Is that true?

SONG: Yeah. And that's what our reporting has found out. Here in Los Angeles layoffs are done strictly by seniority. And so we kind of ask question, and what happened during the layoffs? Did a lot of people who were effective get let go? And, like you said, we found the answer was yes. And we also found that the layoffs were concentrated, you know, most heavily in the poor parts of the city, kind of in the south and central parts of Los Angeles.

MARTIN: Now, why would that be?

SONG: Well, those schools are hard to staff, either because veteran teachers don't want to go there for whatever reason or that, you know, principals have a tough time hiring folk, and so they tend to rely on younger teachers who are more eager for any kind of job within the system. And so some principals at those schools try to use that to their advantage.

MARTIN: Now, Rick, in Europe, of course, where austerity measures are being instituted by a number of governments. We've seen street demonstrations in response to, you know, proposed tuition hikes and things of that sort. Now, we haven't seen quite that level of anger here. But we have seen a lot of people say that this is a disaster, you know, not just in California, but around the country. And do you agree or do you disagree?

HESS: For the most part I actually disagree. Schools have never faced much pressure, even in crises moments. So if we look, for instance, in the first year of the great recession in '08, '09, the basic cuts that we saw districts undertaking, where they were turning down thermostats, they were delaying the procurement of textbooks and they were cutting back on bus service.

What we started to see last year was districts either doing what L.A.'s doing, simply riffing across the board, typically without using this as an opportunity to identify and remove less effective educators, Or we saw what Hawaii has done, which is simply chopping down the school year, depriving our kids of instructional opportunities simply because we know of no other way to fix the problem.

MARTIN: What is your idea? What's your better idea?

HESS: Sure. What we see in most lines of work, look at, for instance, let's say The Huffington Post or Slate, when it comes to the media today, is the way that technology and reinvention usually work, is that we figure out how to use new tools and new staffing models to actually do a better job of many of our activities for less money.

For instance, right now what we see is districts allowing class size to creep up across the board. I don't know the L.A. USD numbers. Nationally we're seeing districts often adding a half kid or a kid a classroom. Frankly, there's no evidence that this is going to make a lick of difference in quality of instruction.

Very small classes, at kindergarten and perhaps first grade and for kids who are most at risk seem to make a lot of sense. But having 18 rather than 22 or 26 kids in a 7th grade or in 10th grade class, there's really no evidence at all that this makes a lick of difference. And, in fact, by going to larger class sizes, it means we need fewer educators. We can devote our resources to paying those educators more and to training them better. This is simply off the table in many conversations.

MARTIN: Except that aren't the jurisdictions we're talking about jurisdictions where the kids are already at risk?

HESS: Absolutely. And, you know, and the reality is that that's what we have actually done. We've increased, after inflation spending in this country, threefold since the early '70s while we flatlined on the national assessment of educational progress. A district like Newark, for instance, or Washington, D.C., is spending something, like, 22 to $23,000 per pupil enrolled.

And what we have seen is these dollars have mostly been soaked up, adding additional bodies in front of classrooms, which actually makes it harder to attract quality instructors because the more teachers you have, the harder it is to fill each job with an effective teacher.

And what happens is most of the spare dollars, as they have come in, have been pumped into nudging up the steps and lanes on the compensation scale.

MARTIN: OK. So, your perspective is crisis leads to opportunity, or at least it should.

HESS: It's the Emanuel formula.

MARTIN: OK. Jason, final thought from you. What are educational leaders in Los Angeles talking about in response to these anticipated cuts - the cuts that have already been made and the anticipated cuts? What do they say?

SONG: I think they also are questioning, how can we more efficiently run the system? I mean, when the layoffs came, when they saw all these teachers being laid off strictly by seniority, a lot of school board members thought, you know, maybe there's a better way. And I think that that's a movement that's kind of catching on nationwide. School districts saying, if we can't - if we're forced to lay off teachers, can we at least take a look and see who we're laying off.

So I think that conversation is really just kind of getting started in Los Angeles. And I'm sure it's something that will, you know, continue for the foreseeable future.

MARTIN: Jason Song is an education reporter for The Los Angeles Times. He's been covering the budget situation there, which includes significant teacher and other school personnel layoffs in Los Angeles Unified School District. He spoke to us from member station KPCC in Pasadena, California.

MARTIN: How Schools and Districts Can Save Money While Serving Students Best." He joined us from the studios of the American Enterprise Institute, where he works. And the American Enterprise Institute is a conservative research and policy think tank. Thank you both so much for speaking to us, and happy holidays to you both.

HESS: You too.

SONG: Thank you so much.

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