The California Student Lockout

July 23, 2012

When asked to propose ways to deal with budget cuts, the National Park Service famously proposed closing the Washington Monument, and this tactic of choosing the most egregious conceivable action as a way of forestalling budget cuts is enshrined in budgeting lore.

But now California is moving rapidly to displace this symbol of governmental malfeasance with a much more harmful ploy: If you will not give the money we want for schools, we will close them down. In what I think is aptly labeled the California Student Lockout, the state sets a new standard of a government’s moving to serve the government workers at the expense of its most vulnerable citizens – here the children of California. This unfathomable choice that is being written into California contracts clearly trumps the Washington Monument strategy.

If the school budget must be reduced, an increase in class size would by all evidence do much, much less harm to students than shortening the school year further. If that increase in class size was accomplished by letting the least effective teachers (as opposed to the youngest teachers) go, the evidence suggests that students would actually be helped — and California might even move up from its current bottom rankings in terms of student achievement.

The California fiscal situation is well-known. The budget has been seriously out of balance, leading Governor Jerry Brown to campaign for an aggressive package of spending cuts and tax increases. The tax increases rely upon voter approval of his newly proposed sales and income tax rates (which are of course advertised as being temporary). But to help stack the voters toward his proposal, he has also proclaimed broad automatic cuts in all spending if taxpayers do not go along with his plans. The modest cuts to date in education spending would blossom under the automatic rescissions.

So how should districts react to the budget cuts and to the uncertainty? A law passed in the eleventh hour of the last legislative session said that, in anticipation of budget shortfalls, districts could not layoff teachers but could shorten the school year by up to five days if the teachers union agreed to furlough days.

But wait! There is more! Over the next two years, districts can actually shorten the school year by up to 30 days.

Capistrano Unified School District, a southern California district with over 50,000 students, has agreed to a contract that could become a model for the state – and that underscores how the National Park Service is being displaced in ignominy. In the contract, the district has fully accepted the first five day shortening of the school year. Moreover, the contract also says that the district will reduce the school year by an additional ten days if the Governor’s referendum does not pass.

Let’s put this into perspective. California ranks 47th among the states in eighth grade math (while educating one-eighth of the nation’s students). And it is looking for a ten percent reduction in school time unless the taxpayers agree to raise overall state revenues.

It is very difficult to think of a worse choice that could be made. There is simply no way that the already-handicapped students of California can easily make up for this.

There is the fairness argument. If there are fiscal problems, shouldn’t everybody bear their own share? But think about this. The immediate pressures on salaries and teaching position are being balanced against a lifetime of harm to students from a poor and uncompetitive education. Indeed, in an effort to obfuscate the situation and to gain even more sympathy for the plight of the adults, the discussion of the Capistrano school board and its superintendent did not concentrate on the impact on students of reduced school days but was almost entirely about the furlough of teachers and staff. Nonetheless, during the debate, one dissenting trustee did say she was opposing the contract because it meant “less time on task.” Contrast this with the report on the district website that misleadingly chronicles the “successful” school board deliberations with the headline “Budget balanced with employee concessions.”

The Capistrano teachers have agreed to a 1.5 percent salary cut if the Governor’s plan fails. Yet, in this instance, the action will not actually take place for two months after the referendum, allowing time so that it can be renegotiated. (Does anybody want to take an even-money bet on how the negotiations will turn out if they are called into play?)

Why is this overall approach such an attractive budgetary option for the unions and their counterparts on the school board? By dealing with all budget issues as a temporary retrenchment, the school district must never adjust to a budget reality that is lower than their current budget. It need not permanently lay off any teachers. It doesn’t need to reduce any future retirement and healthcare expenditures.

If the governor and the various school boards that follow this route do not succeed in extorting tax increases out of the population, the statement is clear: The students are to be the first to suffer.

Eric Hanushek is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University and a member of the Koret Task Force on K-12 Education.