After the Legislature opens a special session today to discuss how to close a $6 billion hole in the current state budget, schools are likely to endure another big midyear blow. And then comes the really bad news: the need to reconcile a projected $19.5 billion shortfall for 2011-12, partly by cutting education.
Here's the likely result: "Schools will become more and more like prisons and less and less like schools," said David Plank, a professor of education at Stanford University. "You'll have huge classes, restive young people and overworked teachers."
Sound drastic? So is the budget crisis.
Soon after he is sworn in next month, Governor-elect Jerry Brown will have to present a budget for 2011-12, a year that likely will be worse than any that California schools have endured in modern history. The deficit is so huge that educators and officials either can't think about it or can't believe it.
That denial stems partly from successive years of cutbacks, when schools made do and Sacramento staved off disaster with accounting tricks, a bond, temporary tax increases and Uncle Sam's stimulus funds. Now, even as state tax revenues continue to plunge, those options are exhausted.
Part of the problem, educators say, stems from Californians' mantra about education that sounds like a Target slogan: Expect more, pay less.
California already spends nearly the least per-student in the nation on K-12 education, and has
Besides the $6 billion hole in this year's state budget and a 2011-12 state shortfall pegged at $19.5 billion by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office, schools are staring at even more: $1.7 billion the state deferred from this fiscal year to next. The potential end of billions of dollars in federal stimulus funds. A $2 billion drop in what the state guarantees education through the voter-approved Proposition 98.
Edgar Cabral, a policy analyst for the LAO, calls the outlook "dire." Some districts, he said, may go insolvent.
The immediate reason for the fiscal distress is that tax revenues are down, while costs -- teachers' salaries, health insurance and utilities -- keep rising. In addition, California has a "structural deficit" -- its services cost more than its taxes bring in. And the Legislature's habit of putting off tough decisions, for example, by deferring payments to school districts, adds to schools' plight.
If the Legislature doesn't come to agreement in this month's special session, it will hand off the hard decisions to Brown and a new Legislature convening in January. With the political difficulty of raising revenues, the state will likely face more budget cuts. And because K-12 education comprises about 40 percent of state spending, it will be nearly impossible to balance the budget without inflicting deep cuts in education.
Neither Brown nor many state and school officials want to speculate on how -- and how much -- schools will be cut.
State Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, one of the Legislature's education experts, said the coming year is "truly scary." For starters, he thinks the Legislature may simply write off the $1.7 billion it promised to pay schools next year for costs incurred this year.
And, he said, it may further cut into the school year, as it did before, allowing districts to trim the 180-day school year by five more days, to 170 days.
The Legislature passing off tough decisions, like whether to shorten the school year, angers local educators. "If they don't want to fund a 180-day school year, they should mandate that for everybody," said Stephen McMahon, president of the San Jose Teachers Association. It's unfair for less-wealthy districts like San Jose Unified to have to impose unpaid furloughs when wealthy districts keep the longer school year, he said.
The state also may cut back on the per-student payments to districts, while extending them some budgetary flexibility to use state moneys where needed rather than for specific programs such as busing or gifted-and-talented education.
The budget picture is so grainy that no one has specifics. But supposing a $4 billion cut -- which would be less than half of what education's proportional share of next year's projected shortfall would be -- districts would lose $644 per student. For San Jose Unified, that comes to a $20.6 million cut to a district that's already bumped up class sizes, eliminated librarians, music, art and other programs.
The district's budget chief, Ann Jones, said, "There is no way education can bear that."
To save enough simply by reducing the school year, the state would have to cut back to 150 days, said Ron Bennett, president of School Services of California, which advises school districts. "I think a federal judge would be on your doorstep if the state of California proposed doing that."
Without additional revenues or other solutions, "We're looking at scorched-earth kind of policies," he said.
But educators are ever the optimists. Whatever happens, "the sun will come up tomorrow and kids will come to school," Jones said.
Jerry Kurr, budget chief for the East Side Union High School District, said school budget officers sometimes say, "We can balance any budget. Just give me a large tent and a couple of teachers." He notes that the state sets no maximum class size for high schools.
But however California cuts education, the likely result, Plank of Stanford said, will be "less and less learning will go on."
Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775.