State schools must evaluate their contributions to crisis 

Jack O’Connell, the outgoing superintendent of California schools, declared Tuesday that a record 174 school districts have been placed on the state’s list of financially troubled education systems.

“Schools today are facing a period of unprecedented fiscal crisis,” O’Connell told reporters as he released the list, blaming it on state budget cuts.

“This trend will worsen if the governor’s proposed cuts to public education are enacted in the 2010-11 budget,” O’Connell said in an accompanying statement. “I have grave concerns that more and more school districts will face financial crisis unless state lawmakers find solutions to the state budget crisis and provide adequate funding for our schools.”

Certainly a six-fold increase in the past year in the number of financially distressed school districts is alarming. And certainly a major underlying cause is the lean fiscal diet on which the state has placed them in recent years. But to blame the districts’ fiscal woes simply on unresponsive or even cruel politicians, as O’Connell and others in the education establishment imply, would be factually incorrect.

The entire state budget is a disaster zone, one created initially by irresponsible squandering of windfall revenue on unsustainable permanent spending and tax cuts and exacerbated by the severe recession that’s plagued California in recent years.

The schools have been hit hard, but other aspects of state spending have been hit hard as well. And even with spending cuts, the state continues to overspend its much-diminished revenue.

In addition, some of the districts on the distressed list have been there for years — Oakland Unified, for example — not because the state didn’t give them enough money, but because their superintendents and boards spent money they didn’t have, especially on teacher contracts, while assuming that someone would magically fill the gap.

And while 16 percent of the state’s 1,077 school districts have been declared in distress, unable or nearly unable to meet their financial commitments, 84 percent of them have done what they needed to do to keep themselves afloat. All districts operate under the same laws that specify their revenue streams. Most have adapted to the constrained circumstances while others haven’t, for reasons known only to themselves.

The fact that many of the distressed districts are big-city systems, such as gigantic Los Angeles Unified, may be a clue, since they tend to have bloated administrative structures and powerful unions that control the school trustees they elected.

Does this mean California schools have enough money?

By no means. But as an exhaustive report by Stanford University concluded a few years ago, it would not make sense to give schools a lot more money unless major operational and pedagogical reforms are adopted to make those schools more effective.

Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns are distributed by the Scripps Howard News Service.

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