With 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.
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.