The biggest losers in the state budget deficit battles that have raged for more than three years are only now becoming clear, and they are not necessarily the causes and people who have drawn the biggest headlines.
Sure, some prison guards will lose their jobs as inmates are released. Yes, some highway construction projects will be delayed or shelved. True, welfare-to-work and public health programs are now severely curtailed. So are the operating hours of state parks and local libraries, and in-home supportive services are taking cuts.
The people who long benefited from all these programs, from crime victims to drivers, hikers, readers and the poor will all lose some of what they’ve long had.
But it’s California’s children – from kindergarten up through college age – who will suffer the most, and the effects they will feel became obvious as school started over the last few weeks.
The most visible items: Starting now, there will be thousands fewer students on the many campuses of the University of California and the California State University system. Those who are there will struggle more than ever to get into required classes. And nearly half the public school districts around California will shorten their school year from 180 days to 175 or 176.
Not much of a difference, you might say. But listen to state Schools Supt. Jack O’Connell, a former schoolteacher who will be termed out next winter and has no more political axes to grind:
“This is a major setback,” he said. “We’re reducing learning opportunities for our students, which puts California kids at a disadvantage relative to other states.” And not just other American states, either. Numerous countries, from Britain to Japan and South Korea, already had far longer school years than California even before these cuts.
California’s school districts have long been allowed to reduce school days to help balance budgets, but only a few actually did it last year, and they were mostly small districts, so the effects were not as noticeable as they will be this fall, when the gigantic Los Angeles Unified district cuts five days from its calendar and San Francisco lops two, just to name a couple of cash-strapped districts whose students will lose out.
But it’s not only elementary and high schools that will be affected. Hundreds of thousands of parents will suddenly face new child care needs. Universities and the students who had a right to expect to attend them will also suffer.
With enrollments cut by more than 100,000 qualified students this fall, the state’s two big public university systems last spring began using waiting lists for the first time ever. The reason: The campuses would like to accept every single student whose education can be funded with the reduced money coming from the state.
When students who once would have been routinely admitted opt for a waiting list rather than outright rejection, the campuses can control their admissions more precisely, letting in some from the waiting list as they learn of admitted students who won’t be enrolling in the fall. This makes for efficient management, but doesn’t help a sad situation that departs radically from the state’s 50-year-old master plan for higher education, which promised enrollment on a four-year campus to all who qualify.
That’s bad, but because many students denied slots at public universities can still complete work at community colleges, the elementary and high school slashes are worse.
Those cuts might make some kids happy in the short term, giving them more time off. But in the long run they and the entire state will be harmed. That’s because a well-educated populace has been the cornerstone of California’s economic and social growth since the 1940s. Without such a workforce, it would have been impossible for either the electronics or the film industries to become successful.
Study after study has shown that the more class time students get, the more face time they spend with teachers, the more they learn. If this year’s cuts continue, they will mean the average Los Angeles student will miss more than a full month of school through a high school career. And three months over the 12 years from first grade through the end of high school.
Universities have to teach remedial English and math today; just imagine what they’ll face under this schedule.
Today’s children will be the biggest losers in all this, with diminished lifetime prospects. And California, too, will lose on many levels. There will be a less capable workforce, less educated voters, lower incomes and resulting lower tax receipts. It’s a disaster in the making, and one that can be prevented only by either a strong economic recovery (not likely soon) or an increased willingness by citizens and legislators to make sure schools don’t have to sustain any more cuts like this year’s.
Contact Tom Elias