2012-05-22 07:30:00

California Schools Under More Stress

LOS ANGELES—A new education report finds that California schools are under more stress than ever after years of budgets cuts.

The first report by EdSource to analyze school stress factors, “Schools under Stress: Pressures Mount on California’s Largest School Districts” identifies eight factors that make it more difficult for a school to provide quality education to all of its students.

“Unless you are a parent or a student, you don’t know what is going on in schools,” EdSource executive director Louis Freedberg told reporters from ethnic media outlets at a recent briefing in downtown Los Angeles co-organized by New America Media.

“What we really try to do with this report is to bring together a list of factors that are often reported on but not in a comprehensive, holistic way,” he said.

Freedberg, who worked as an education reporter with California Watch before joining the education research organization, said the stress factors allow the media and the general public to gain greater understanding of the accumulative impact on schools after five sustained years of cuts, which amount to an average loss of $530 per student.

The report was compiled by surveying California’s 30 largest school districts, which serve more than half of the student population in the state who are largely low-income and non-white. The report also drew data from the American Community Survey and the U.S. census.

The eight stress factors identified include: teacher layoffs, larger class sizes, fewer instructional days, fewer counselors, reduced summer programs, declining enrollment, increasing child poverty and high unemployment.

Lasting effects of pink slips

Of all of the factors, Freedberg described teacher layoffs as the most stressful because it affects teachers, students and parents, and changes the school climate.

“Not only were the layoffs stressful, but the fear of layoffs [created stress],” added Freedberg.

All school districts in California are required by law to send out preliminary pink slips to teachers by March 15, before the state and local budget is finalized. As districts often plan for the worst, and with many of them drilling deep into the their reserves after years of cutbacks, districts often send out many more pink slips than they actually need to. The vast majority of these teachers are rehired later in the year, but the stress caused by this cycle of potential layoffs has a lasting effect on schools.

Last year, more than one-third of the 30 largest school districts issued preliminary layoff notices to nearly 11,000 teachers. In the end, only 2,200 teachers were not rehired.

Freedberg said advocates are looking to legislators to see if they can push back the deadline to give out pink slips to August, when school districts have a better idea of their budget and thus avoid giving out unnecessary pink slips.

School counselors are also losing their jobs as personnel expenses represent the biggest cost to school district. According to the report, more than two-thirds of the surveyed school districts have laid off counselors since the recession, leaving only 2,400 counselors serving more than 2 million children in K-12 schools. This represents a 20 percent decrease from the 2007-08 school year, when California schools had approximately 3,000 counselors.

“That means there is one counselor to 800 students,” said Freedberg. As one-on-one counseling becomes limited or unavailable, students may end up missing out on the classes they need in order to be prepared for college.

Drop in enrollment

But what most surprised reporters from Los Angeles’ immigrant and minority media outlets was the decline in student enrollment in California schools.

More than half of the school districts surveyed said they have experienced declining enrollments since 2005, which reflects a reversal of a two-decade trend of rising enrollment rates since the 1980s. Statewide, enrollment in K-12 public schools declined by 58,000 students from 2007-08 to the 2010-11 school year.

“I thought it would be the other way -- I thought schools were getting more crowded,” said Esmeralda Fabian, education report with Los Angeles Spanish-language newspaper La Opinión, who has reported on school closures in the Los Angeles areas. However, she noted, with Latinos taking the hardest hit in the foreclosure crisis, students might be leaving due to lost of housing.

Since a large part of school district funding comes from attendance, a district sustains a financial loss of between $5,000 and $6,000 for each student who leaves the district, and the resulting funding shortage leads to more layoffs and school closures.

According to Freedberg, the decline in enrollment is the result of a combination of factors, including a decline in the birth rate, housing and foreclosure problems, and the rising trend of parents choosing to transfer their children to private or charter schools.

The role of parents

For reporters from the city’s ethnic media, the report findings are an alarming signal for parents to act.

Cesar Arredondo, a Spanish-language editor at Amigos805, a news site providing information for Latino communities in Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties, said the stress factors make it clear that parents have to step in and advocate on behalf of their kids.

“They have to participate in their local districts, PTA, elections, in all aspects,” said Arredondo, who has seen Latino parental involvement in schools remain low over the years. “Or else, they have to live with the consequences for having others make the decisions for them,” he said.

For Arredondo, that could mean a disadvantage for Latinos who make up 52 percent of students in California public schools yet are not well represented on school boards.
A 2010 study released by San Francisco State University’s Cesar Chavez Institute
found that the majority of school boards in the state have no Latino representation.

Tang Sripipat, a reporter with the Thai newspaper Siam Media, said the stress factors give parents a new tool to use when talking about the effects budget cuts have on their children’s education. He said parents should cite these stress factors when sending letters to city council members and other elected officials.

But it isn’t only up to parents.

“Most people who vote do not have kids in the public education system,” noted Freedberg, who hopes the report will allow voters to understand the bigger picture that cutbacks have brought to basic education for all California children.

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