Worser and worser

A survey of California principals finds cuts eroding quality

In case anyone needed more evidence that California public schools are in decline, this year’s annual report on learning conditions at California high schools is aptly entitled Free Fall: Educational Opportunities in 2011. UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access (IDEA) and All Campus Consortium on Research for Diversity (ACCORD), sent the survey to every high school principal in the state over the summer of 2010, and heard back from 227, just shy of 25 percent. As if anticipating the first question, the authors write up front, “The challenges facing California educators are not new, just worse.”

How much worse can it get than laying off teachers; closing libraries; eliminating counselors; losing art, music and drama; and squeezing 42 students into classrooms built for 32? The most vivid illustration probably comes from a principal in Riverside County, who told researchers her school can no longer afford to buy enough frogs for every student to dissect in science class, so now there’s just one which “the teacher shows on a document camera, and so that’s not really engaging learning.” That scenario could only be worse if her school was in Calaveras County.

UCLA Education Professor John Rogers, who is also director of IDEA, said the survey results are a representative sample of California public high school principals in 45 counties and include charter schools. He presented the four core findings in a Powerpoint during a news conference on Monday.

  • California high schools are providing less time, attention, and quality programs. As a consequence, student engagement and achievement and progress toward college are suffering,
  • School reform has all but sputtered to a halt due to staff cutbacks and the elimination of time for professional development,
  • California high schools face growing demand from families experiencing economic crisis at a time when the state is also considering cuts to its social welfare budgets,
  • Even as all high schools across the state are affected by declining budgets, inequality is growing across and within schools.

Some of the most compelling stories from the principals concern the impact of the economic downturn on students and their families. Paula Hanzel, principal of New Tech High in Sacramento, said she spends “about 75 percent of my day, every day, on families and kids in crisis.” Of the more than 2,500 students at George Washington Preparatory High School in Los Angeles, principal Todd Ullah said 90 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and between 200 and 300 are in foster care. “They do come to school each day,” said Ullah. “Many of them just to eat and have a meal.”

This inequality of educational opportunities due to poverty was at the root of the May 2000 class action lawsuit known as Williams v. California. The settlement agreement required the State Department of Education and other state agencies to provide students in the lowest-performing schools (which are usually the poorest as well) with equal access to instructional materials, safe and decent school facilities, and qualified teachers. “Has the underlying civil rights issue in the Williams case been exacerbated? I think it has,” said Tom Torlakson, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, who also participated in the news conference. “The disparities, the unequal education taking place in California, raises the issue of a larger Williams-type civil rights issue that our students are not getting an equal education in California, and this report documents it in many respects.”

One of the most affected areas is textbooks and other instructional materials. Under Williams, schools had to provide every student with a textbook for school and home use.  When the Legislature gave schools flexibility in categorical funds in 2009, textbooks were one of the pots of money put into the flex mix. That didn’t nullify the Williams agreement, but it did put more of the onus on parents and teachers to monitor their schools’ compliance.

Torlakson said the Department of Education surveyed district and county superintendents on how they’re spending their flex dollars and expects to have the results within a few weeks. He’s also promoting SB 613, a bill sponsored by Sen. Elaine Alquist (D-San Jose) that would change the definition of textbooks in the state education code to include digital materials, which can often be viewed for free online. Still, that requires that schools and students have access to the Internet, and, as Paula Hanzel says, that’s also becoming more of a challenge as schools have less money to buy and maintain computers and equipment. Hanzel says if there are any more cuts, her school may be New Technology High in name only.

1 Comment

  1. FWIW:  As a chartered school, the New Technology High School in Sacramento already enjoys the flexibility that Torlakson/Alquist seek in their SB613 legislation.  The charter school need not buy state-adopted textbooks unless it wants to do so and can instead spend its funds on digital materials as it deems fit.
    Of course, this doesn’t help with the grim revenue situation, which is especially grim for charter schools since the vast majority of charter schools get stiffed on categorical funds relative to non-chartered schools.

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