boy-looking-awayWith the passage of Proposition 30 and implementation of a new funding system channeling more money to most districts this fall, the 2012-13 school year will be the base for measuring how well schools recover from the Great Recession. Yet as EdSource documents in a report issued Thursday, there will be a steep climb out of the trough.

In “Recovering from the Recession: Pressures Ease on California’s Largest Districts, but Stresses Remain,” EdSource found signs that budgets were stabilizing and districts were regaining some ground after five years of damaging budget cuts. But there were also areas of further concern, such as a decline in the number of counselors in schools and a rise in rates of childhood poverty – evidence that districts continued to struggle, as measured by some key indices.

The survey polled the state’s 30 largest districts, which together enroll some 2 million children, about a third of the state’s K-12 students. As it did in its initial report last year, EdSource examined stress factors on schools, including class size, teacher layoffs and the number of instructional days. The current report added additional factors – housing foreclosures, responses to security threats and access to health care – that have a direct impact on student wellness and performance in the classroom.

Last year was a pivotal, but also, in some respects, difficult year for budgeting. Many districts had budgeted conservatively, in case Prop. 30, the tax hike to help fund education, failed. After it passed, some did find money to restore additional days to the school year. It was too late, however, to hire new positions in the middle of the year. Districts are seeing the first big boost to their operating budgets from the proposition and the Local Control Funding Formula for schools in the current year.

California's 30 largest school districts saw an increase in the number of students living in poverty in 2012-13.

California’s 30 largest school districts saw an increase in the number of students living in poverty in 2012-13.

In analyzing 2012-13, EdSource did find some areas of encouragement:

  • Fewer layoff notices: The 30 districts issued 848 preliminary layoff notices in March, fewer than 10 percent of the notices the year before. Even though most teachers given notices are subsequently rehired by the start of school, layoff notices disrupt teachers’ lives and sap morale. The fewer, the better.
  • Instructional days: Eight districts restored instructional days, bringing to 18 the number of districts back at the full 180-day year in effect before 2009. Six districts were still at 175 days, the minimum allowed, with the rest in between 175 and 180.
  • Health insurance coverage: In 19 of the 30 districts, more students had health coverage in 2011, the most recent year with data available, than in 2008. But even this good sign understates the difficulty many children have in getting dental and vision care. In eight districts, the proportion of students without health coverage were in the double digits, ranging from 10 percent in Los Angeles Unified and Garden Grove Unified to 17 percent in Fontana Unified.

The largest districts reported several areas of decline from the year before:

  • Class sizes: Under the Local Control Funding Formula, which went into effect last month, districts must again begin ratcheting down class sizes in grades K-3, with a new goal of a 24:1 student-teacher ratio in eight years. Last year, however, in 11 districts, K-3 class sizes grew larger than the year before. In a dozen of the 30 largest districts, K-3 classes have 30 students or more, and an additional three have 28 or 29 students. Only in one grade in one district, Stockton Unified, is at the 20:1 ratio that was in effect before 2008, when the Legislature loosened the standard. The state’s two largest districts, Los Angeles and San Diego, have managed to keep 24:1 in K-3.
  • Counselors: Even before the Great Recession, California had one of the highest student-to-counselor ratios. It’s gotten worse. In 2011, the statewide ratio was 1,016:1, more than twice the national average of 471:1. For the 30 largest districts, it was 842:1. Only Fresno Unified had more counselors last year than before the recession: 75 counselors, 10 more than in 2008-09.

The 11 stress factors examined in the report are teacher layoffs, larger class sizes, fewer instructional days, fewer counselors, cutbacks in summer school, security threats, declining enrollments, increasing childhood poverty, high unemployment, foreclosures and health insurance coverage. The report was written by EdSource executive director Louis Freedberg, staff writer Susan Frey and senior research associate Lisa Chavez.


Filed under: Featured, Health, Nutrition, Fitness, K-12 Reform, Poverty, Reporting & Analysis, School Finance · Tags: , ,

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  1. el says:

    I would say that the main improvement is the end of the constant threats to cut budgets even more, mid-year, next year, all the time, and the constant lack of any fiscal security. The stress this has created is enormous.

    We’re still standing on a very small and perilous rock outcropping, but at least the dirt has stopped actively disappearing from beneath our feet. Districts can plan for and look forward to a time when things might be better. That’s not quite the same as those things actually being better.

    Meanwhile, a whole generation of kids has been actively damaged by these severe resource cuts, and that impact will be felt for many years even after funding is restored. Kids who are 5th graders now have had their entire school lives in this reality.

  2. Hurley says:

    I’m concerned that the EdSource report isn’t a true reflection of the circumstances at schools. I believe the situation isn’t really improved for most students.

    For example, San Diego Unified School District’s situation is significantly more grim than depicted. I agree with Navigio; how can SDUSD and other districts get “light blue” on the “less stressed” scale for having only 175 instructional days? They can’t legally go below this number, so this represents the bottom of the barrel, with both less instruction for students and less pay for employees. How can that not be considered stress?

    In addition, the fact that SDUSD didn’t issue layoffs in Spring 2013 is misleading. Instead, the district opted for an “attrition” model (with early retirement incentives), which would freeze all non-essential positions that were vacated and raise class sizes to accommodate the expected attrition of 300 teachers. So while K-3 class sizes are currently 1:24 (except in a subset of the lowest-performing, highest poverty schools), they are slated to rise to 1:27 in 2013-14. How can that not be considered increased stress?

    Furthermore, there are additional “stress factors” that are not addressed at all. For example, how many of the programs and services that have been lost since 2007-08 have been restored? In SDUSD, funding and services previously supported by Tier III categorical funds, such as music instruction and Gifted and Talented Education, remain slashed. Programs that addressed desegregation have been reduced or eliminated (the Voluntary Ethnic Enrollment Program and the Off Campus Interactive Learning Environment programs, respectively). Beyond teachers and counselors, continued low staffing of certificated and classified personnel has resulted in closures of school libraries, shortages in health office personnel, reduced bus service, etc. None of that is improving.

    Finally, unfortunately, there was no effort to report the issue which underpins much of the stress: a direct measure of the fiscal health of each district. This goes beyond what cuts have been made, as the district may be deficit spending, making the reality of the situation much worse than measures of class size and layoff notices would suggest. A quick check of the California Department of Education’s website shows that of the 30 districts profiled, eight have qualified certification on their second interim report, from early 2013 (meaning, for those who don’t already know, that these districts “may not meet [their] financial obligations for fiscal year 2012-13, 2013-14, or 2014-15).

    Case in point, SDUSD has been deficit spending every year since 2007-08, using its minimal reserves plus an assortment of one-time funding. Currently, it continues the practice of “fire-selling” its real estate holdings. All told it has plans to sell $105 million—that’s not a typo—of additional real estate to help fill an estimated $84 million deficit for 2013-14 and an estimated $101 million deficit in 2014-15. (See page 19 of$file/2013-14%20Budget%20Adoption%20First%20Reading%20Presentation%2C%206-18-13.pdf and page 5 of$file/Three-Year%20Planning%2C%207-30-13.pdf for the facts.)

    I’m hoping that the Legislative Analyst’s Office will do a comprehensive “year five” study of the impacts of the recession (the last study being “year three”), which should include the positive impacts of Proposition 30 and LCFF. Their report could include measures of not only how many teachers, counselors, etc. have been rehired but also whether student programs and services historically supported by categorical funding are being rebuilt, remain skeletonized, or are being disbanded. In addition, it could report how the districts are utilizing Common Core funding: how much has been spent and on what (technology, professional development, etc.).

    If the LAO isn’t going to take this on, I hope that EdSource takes the time to dig deeper into the data and put together a more comprehensive report.

  3. Paul says:

    Navigio, as always, thank you for the thorough review.

    To EdSource: Your report is pedestrian. There’s nothing new, nothing that other outlets haven’t covered. You are privy to such great leads in the discussions that take place here on EdSource Today that I would have expected new angles on these well-worn issues.

    I’ll pick two topics that I am familiar with, and suggest a third one that merits analysis.

    Class Size Reduction:

    Statistical evidence of increases in class size has been available for years. All outlets have reported the steady decline of the K-3 Class Size Reduction program. (K-3 CSR survives in Local Control Funding only as a 24-student threshold, unenforced during the 8-year phase-in and subject to waiver by local teachers’ unions after that.) No outlet has said much about secondary school class size, though. I would have hoped for mention of the Morgan-Hart ninth-grade academic class size reduction program. Before the recession, funds to keep high school Algebra I classes (failure rate > 40%) at 20 students were widely available. The program didn’t survive LCF in any form, and your report, focusing as it did on the 2012-2013 school year, could have provided a perfect epitaph.

    Teacher Layoffs:

    Layoffs are but one aspect of the revolving-door human resource management strategy adopted by California’s public education system. The first-ever research on temporary teachers was published this spring. Now that Proposition 30 is reducing layoffs, the number of temporary teachers — released automatically at the end of the school year — must dwarf the number of teachers laid off. Just as with layoffs, temporary assignments are not tracked thoroughly by state government. Thus, your school district survey would have afforded a unique opportunity to study temporary employment. Since temporary teachers are not entitled to evaluation under the Stull Act, do not make progress toward permanent status (“tenure”), and do not enjoy any re-employment rights, the phenomenon of temporary employment is more damaging than layoffs.

    Temporary Nature of Proposition 30:

    While all media outlets seem to be rejoicing about Proposition 30 and treating the 8-year LCF phase-in plan as if it were the Gospel, why not stop to reconcile the state’s projections for the out-years? Does the state assume voter renewal of Proposition 30? Continued economic growth? Sustained economic growth? A miracle?

  4. Manuel says:

    I echo navigio’s thanks. It is good to see this in one place.

    Yet, I am afraid that looking at these indicators is just one piece of the puzzle. A better way might be in scrutinizing how many resources are actually finding their way into the classroom in terms of salaries, supplies and support.

    But this might be impossible as bureaucracies are very good at obfuscating the actual costs of education. As has been pointed by others, average class size depends on the total number of certificated employees (aka teachers), even though they may have nothing to do with teaching children. Similarly, averaging effectively reduces average class size in high schools even though classes are reported to be in the 40 to 50 range (yes, that’s what I hear “from the field”).

    In essence, my main concern is that accounting tricks will make it look like the Prop 30 and LCFF funds are going to the classroom when in reality they are going to the latest idea that high ranking administrators decided to implement because it will look good in their resume (iPads for everyone!!!)

    And, yes, poverty is the main problem but, again, there is a lot of money that will be diverted if we ever truly get serious about it. Just look at the Harlem Children’s Zone, which President Obama claims to want to see replicated because of its alleged success in combating the effects of poverty. HCZ pays $2.5 million dollars to its executive team and it serves 15,000 kids and 7,000 adults (according to Wikipedia). Given this cost, can we afford to replicate it across California, let alone the nation?

    There has got to be a better way.

  5. navigio says:

    I like this study. But of course I have comments. :-)

    I like the overview graph concept, though it could be made more compact (because it’s portrait mode, it’s difficult to view the entire graphic at the same time; something that is important when it includes a ‘menu’ at the very top).

    As to the color-coding of stress, I did find it confusing that the same legend was not used in all the metrics. I understand that in some cases, the difference was between high stress and low stress, while in others it was between lower stress and even lower stress. I also found it odd that the measure of high stress as it relates to safety appears to have been defined as ‘making changes to the safety plan’. One could interpret no changes as either ‘dont care’ or alternatively as ‘we were already secure’. From that perspective, the color-coding is not necessarily intuitive.

    Teacher layoffs:
    I’ve always found the absolute measure of these things to be difficult to relate to some tangible stress factor. Obviously the direct stress is caused to teachers (and to some extent, students) but many of these layoffs were as part of an implicit negotiation process (in fact, many were rescinded, a point not necessarily made clear unless one happened to notice the use of ‘preliminary’ in the table heading). In addition, it’s important to note that one reason for the huge reduction in notices is there is no one left to lay off, ie its not necessarily a positive from a district perspective, a point that is made in the study as well.

    I also would have included the impact of bumping, something that comes to pass as a result of layoffs, even if teachers are rehired. This can be equally stressful to a school environment (our school lost about half our teachers to this process over the past handful of years).

    Class sizes:
    I was dismayed to see that it’s not clear whether class sizes are actual class sizes, or whether they are average class sizes. The numbers appear to coincide with the averages reported on ed-data (eg dataquest), so it is possible that actual general education class sizes are even much larger. It would be helpful if that metric could be defined. Knowing actual class sizes would be much more useful (assuming this is not what is presented) Given that LAUSD already shows up at 24, I guess they need to make no changes in order to receive their LCFF CSR grant.

    That said, I would like to point out that LACOE recently released a bulletin that suggested that school districts not use LCFF numbers for their revenue in their budget projections past 13-14. The reason for this seems to be that they are unsure that LCFF can actually be funded, or that there is no legal requirement to do so (, top of page 6). It would be interesting to know whether such ‘deficit factors’ would impact all aspects of LCFF equally, or whether ‘grant’ portions would suffer first.

    Instructional time:
    I am still shocked by the idea that we would continue to spend a couple weeks implementing standardized testing, only to cut actual instructional days to meet budgetary limitations. It would be interesting to do a study that compared the impact of standardized testing (eg 10 years at approximately 15% proficiency improvement, vs 10 days that were better than repeating a grade in a study mentioned in the report).

    Fewer school counselors.
    Personally, I think this is one of those hidden tragedies in public education. These seem to be the positions that always seem to be considered expendable. But anyone who has taken the time to speak with a middle or high school teacher would quickly understand the impact of such moves.

    It is interesting that Mt Diablo uses ‘student services coordinators’. Usually the ‘coordinator’ term is used when a position can be filled with a classified instead of certificated person (ie cheaper). It would be helpful to know whether that is the case here.

    Summer school:
    In our district, summer school is provided by an educational foundation, and it costs the family money. It would be interesting to understand whether the exclusion of the other ‘private entities’ in the summer school table also excludes foundation-funded programs.

    Safety plans:
    It seems clear the kind of stress this can cause, especially with what we see in the news.

    I would like to point out that ed code includes very specific inclusion of city political and safety entities in the safety plan process, even at the school level. My impression is that this simply does not currently happen at the school level, and maybe even not at the district level (though I cant speak with authority on the latter). Parents can, at the school level, try to push this issue through those ed code requirements. As the study points out, some of these safety burdens can quickly become prohibitively complex/expensive. This is one reason I think its so important to include these other entities in the process. If there is a problem, they will have to be involved anyway.

    Declining enrollment:
    I am a bit confused about the definition of enrollment. The study mentions that declining enrollment is a side-effect of increasing charter enrollment, but then the numbers used for enrollment comparisons (ie showing declines) include charter enrollment. I agree that charters are having a depressive effect on core district enrollment, and this is in turn causing the associated infrastructure, staffing and other fixed-cost problems, but then I think the comparisons should use non-charter enrollment (or at least include that as well).

    I also STRONGLY agree with the negative impact of closing schools. I am continually dismayed by the mantra of ‘choice’ that is provided under the assumption that segregation and non-neighborhood schools is actually what parents want (ie would ‘choose’), when in reality, what parents want is great neighborhood schools. We really need to challenge our districts to not see school closures as a ‘solution’, especially when those same boards approve charter schools at essentially equal rate to traditional enrollment closure/loss.

    I am glad the study included both poverty line rates and F&R rates, since many people confuse those two things. That said, I am continually frightened when I re-realize our child poverty rates in this state. It’s unbelievable. And because I can’t resist, I compared each of these district’s 2011 API with the 2011 poverty level and F&R rates provided in the study. It should not be much of a surprise that the inverse correlation was extremely high for both, -0.93 for poverty to API! Even though the study mentions the hope that LCFF will help some of this, I can’t but remember the LACOE bulletin mentioned earlier..

    Health coverage:
    I think there is a typo in the first sentence of that section.

    Lastly, I would mildly disagree that this report represents a school system that is slowly recovering from the damage inflicted by years of budget cutting. Some things mentioned in the report are completely independent of school funding, so while they may improving, its not as a result of school budgets. Even then, nothing has really changed yet. Prop 30 just kept things constant last year (actually it probably didnt even do that). Its true LCFF may have provided a belated boost to 12-13 budgets, but that was after school ended (if they’ve even received it yet). And this year’s metrics are not included.

    That all said, I am excited to see how these numbers compare in a year and two. And also, thank you for your work on this.

    1. el says:

      I agree with navigio’s horror at the high rates of poverty and low income for kids. I don’t get why this isn’t a regular national discussion along with deficit and unemployment rates.

      I think we can solve nearly all our perceived “problems” in education by ensuring that our schools have a < 10% poverty rate. However, it's not mathematically possible when nationally the rate is 25%.

      Further, those poverty thresholds aren't adjusted for cost of living, so it's the same whether you live in San Francisco or North Dakota. With California's high cost of housing and other expenses, our rate of pain per poverty is almost certainly higher than most other states.

      1. navigio says:

        Its even scarier when you realize its just an average. We have entire counties that have childhood poverty rates at or above 40%, let alone individual districts and regions with even much higher rates. Insane.