The New Worst Way to Deal with Budget Problems

By 07/13/2011

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What is the worst way one could think of to deal with school district budget problems?  Of all of the options, reducing the length of the school year must be the absolute worst – at least from the perspective of students.  But California, always proud of being a leader, has written into law that this is the preferred option if districts face budgetary shortfalls.

Let us look at what is happening, since this might be a direction in which other states consider moving.  As most people are aware, the budget problems in California were clear even before the recession put added pressure on the state.  The traditional California way to deal with these budget problems has been to shroud them in smoke and mirrors – doing budgetary manipulations that make it look like the budget is balanced but that only move the problem into the future.

This year, the new Governor, Jerry Brown, set out to deal with the budget honestly, including putting in place contingency spending reductions if revenues did not come in at the level anticipated in the budget.  This action leads to uncertainty in school district budgets, because there is a reasonable chance that the state may reduce funding midyear.

And here is where the California legislature showed the kind of leadership that makes a mockery of the idea that school policy is about the kids.  At the behest of the California Teachers Association, the legislature declared that to deal with the fiscal situation, none of the thousand school districts in California is permitted to lay off any teachers.  What can it do?  By this legislation, it can eliminate up to seven days from the school year (as long as the local union agrees to that action).

California is the 47th ranked state in terms of achievement, and it educates one-eighth of the nation’s students.  Perhaps the ranking is more obvious to everybody after we see the kind of policies that are being made.

Nationally, the fiscal problems of schools have left many districts scrambling to figure out how to deal with budget shortfalls.  Hopefully no other state will follow this precedent.

-Eric A. Hanushek

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