Public education stakeholders at the local level have long decried the loss of local control of their schools that began nearly a quarter of century ago when Proposition 13 slashed local property taxes, thereby shifting more of the financial burden for schools and more control to Sacramento.
In the years since, school boards have had less to say about how their district budgets should be spent. "Unrestricted" revenues, those which local school boards can use as they see fit, have shrunken drastically as a percentage of the local school districts' budgets in favor of state-mandated and other "categorical" programs.
Local school districts and even state budget analysts have complained for some time that the state's "top-down" system buries school districts in outmoded, over-regulated and unworkable regulations that they must try to cope with or negotiate. On the other hand, past governors and legislatures have complained that school districts plead for money for one thing and then spend it on something entirely different.
The state's heavy influence on local district spending has been especially evident in good times when education money was aplenty. Those days, however, are gone for now and the foreseeable future as the state faces a monstrous deficit of between $25 billion and $36 billion. Now that the state coffers are found wanting, local control is suddenly being given serious consideration at the state level.
Accompanying local control, by the way, would be local responsibility for handling the massive budget problems school districts are facing. It's somewhat akin to a parent handing to his or her child the keys to a car that is out of gas.
Crisis breeds opportunity, to paraphrase an old adage. I believe regaining more local control of our public schools is enough of an advantage to warrant taking on the accompanying budget crisis problems. It's not as if local districts have not dealt with budget crises. School boards have never been immune from being lobbied by parents and others who are for or against various programs and how to use financial resources. Local boards have had to make cuts in those funds under their control in past financial crises. What they need is more flexibility -- local control -- to deal with budget constraints. I can't think of a district that isn't contemplating deep cuts in personnel and other resources to produce a balanced budget for the coming fiscal year.
San Diego Unified, for one, is facing the potential layoffs of more than 1,100 of its 7,400 classroom teachers in an effort to find as much as $150 million in budget cuts for the coming fiscal year that begins July 1. That move alone would cut $78 million from the district's payroll. But most school districts don't have 1,100 teachers period, much less that number to cut.
This action is by no means a sure thing. It is a worst-case scenario that would likely play out in the event that the state stops paying for class-size reduction that keeps kindergarten-through-third-grade classrooms at 20 students.
When introduced in the mid '90s, the class-size reduction program became a full-employment act as districts scrambled to hire the teachers they needed for the additional classrooms made necessary through reduced class sizes in those critical primary grades.
Class-size reduction is one of several categorical programs designed to help and encourage public schools accomplish specific educational objectives. The state provides monies that are earmarked to hire teachers who participate in that program. Those monies cannot be used for other district or school site expenses. If the district does not have the program, it doesn't get the program funding. At last count, there were 110 such programs, ranging from special education to school lunch programs, from bilingual teacher training, agricultural vocational education, English learner assistance, Native American centers, home-to-school transportation, advanced placement to digital high schools and others.
It is in the use of categorical aid that Gov. Gray Davis is proposing a stronger element of local control. In his attempt to bridge a multibillion-dollar spending gap, Davis has repackaged a recommendation made last year by the State Master Plan for Education by the proposed combining of 64 categorical programs into a single grant that the school districts could spend as they choose. The grant would be about 12 percent less than the total of the programs individually and would surely be the catalyst for school board battles up and down the state as local boards, given this new flexibility, struggle over whether to spread the cuts evenly or gut some programs to spare others.
School board squabbles aside -- and we've certainly seen our share locally without this new flexibility -- the shift in local control will empower local school boards to better respond to their local circumstances. What is needed, though, are adequate forums for parents, teachers, business people and community members at large -- all education stakeholders -- to address their views and define their priorities for how school districts can make the best use of this new level of flexibility.
School board meetings are the obvious forums for stakeholders to provide their input. But not all can attend school board meetings. Parent-teacher organizations, such as PTAs, PTSAs, etc., are another -- for parents and teachers.
For others, especially business leaders and professionals, there is the Business Roundtable for Education, which serves as the business community's voice in advocating educational excellence. These days, that means finding the most effective way to exercise effective local control over fewer educational dollars to increase student achievement in our region's classrooms.
We need to hear from business and professional people who have views on what categorical programs should be kept and those that should not, as well as their views on how public education resources as a whole can be better used in these tight financial times. Let us hear from you. The Business Roundtable can be reached via www.educationroundtable.org.
Local control of our schools brings with it the need for local commitment, involvement and a lot of hard work. We need to roll up our sleeves and make the most of whatever controls and flexibility we're being handed. Let's think differently and look at long-term as well as short-term efforts to how we education our children.
Our children's future, and our future, depends on it.
Hovenic, Ed.D., is president and chief executive officer of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce Foundation and executive director of the Foundation's Business Roundtable for Education. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.