Using what appear to be surplus dollars to pay salaries isn't a wise use of public funds. Not that that's ever stopped public officials before. But with a new California law barring school districts from laying off teachers even in the face of mid-year budget shortfalls, it's altogether foolish to contemplate rehiring hundreds of teachers. Yet the law may compel precisely that result.
"This is a serious, serious matter, and the money is there to alleviate it," United Teachers of Los Angeles President Warren Fletcher said at a Thursday news conference. "The school board and the superintendent need to act now. We have already burned a month of school. We can't burn a whole school year."
UTLA reps spoke to reporters in front of Manual Arts High School in South L.A., which is a charter school facing serious crowding and management problems. About 3,000 students are enrolled in the school built for 1,000. The crowding was exacerbated when the school moved this fall from a year-round schedule to a traditional academic year. The school is currently operated by L.A.'s Promise, a nonprofit charter management organization.
The district has already agreed to tap some of that $55 million budget surplus and restore several hundred non-teaching jobs. As always, the teachers union wants more. And the union might get it. The problem is AB 114, which bars school districts from laying off teachers to mitigate midyear budget shortfalls. UTLA insists that the law clears the district to rehire thousands of teachers let go in the past year.
The Legislature rammed through at the 11th hour in June without any hearings or public scrutiny. Gov. Jerry Brown signed the law less than 12 hours after it landed on his desk. Within weeks of approving the new budget, state controller John Chiang was reporting that tax revenues were not meeting projected expectations.
In a blistering post for the California Public Policy Center's Union Watch, City Journal California columnist Larry Sand blasted the law: "This bill in fact destabilizes the entire state... Are the taxpayers in California going to feel 'stabilized' when the inevitable tax hikes are proposed in order to pay for the legislators' flagrant irresponsibility? With AB 114 the only thing that will remain stable is the $649 in CTA dues collected from each teacher whose job is saved by the union-coerced bill."
John Fensterwald, a veteran education reporter who writes at the Thoughts on Public Education blog, explained in a June post how school officials believe AB 114 "could throw already financially stressed school districts into serious financial jeopardy."
The law ties local district officials' hands by "[r]equiring that each school district, regardless of its individual circumstances, assume the same level of funding as last year and maintain staffing and program levels consistent with that," Fensterwald wrote. "Legislators are dictating this even though they admit there's a good chance that revenues may not bear that out."
"Many districts, taking no chances, set aside in reserve $350 per student to cover a possible $2 billion revenue shortfall," he added. "Now the Legislature is saying abandon that caution and rehire teachers and staff and reinstitute programs as before."
And that's what is happening in Los Angeles. Lisa Snell, director of education and child welfare at Reason Foundation in Los Angeles, says UTLA's demands "ignore the fiscal realities of L.A. Unified."
"It's weird because it's not as though the district can maintain staffing at the same level of funding every year with all of the step increases, pension increases, and benefits," she told me today. "That's part of reason for the mess school districts are in. Because of collective bargaining and state laws, costs are constantly rising."
Spending what may well be a one-time budget surplus on hiring "spells financial disaster for every district in the state," Snell said.
"They know there will be mid-year cuts," Snell said. "But [districts] have no contingencies. They're not supposed to consider anything beyond right now. It's like spending all of your money today without thinking about your house payment due next month."
Lance Izumi, Koret Senior Fellow and Senior Director of Education Studies at the Pacific Research Institute in Sacramento, says AB 114 will do little more than exacerbate some ugly trends.
"Using AB 114 to go back to the status quo ante at failing schools like Manual Arts High will do nothing to improve student achievement," he told me. "The UTLA is once again offering up a false solution to a real problem. Putting back blatantly ineffective staff will do nothing to improve student performance."
UTLA's Fletcher argued Thursday that the district needed to rehire teachers to address classroom overcrowding. "We have gigantic class sizes. We have Algebra 2 classes with over 50 students. We have P.E. classes with over 80 students," Fletcher said. "If you're a seventh-grader and you're in one of those ridiculously overcrowded classrooms... Well, you don't ever get to be in seventh grade again, so it is something that needs to happen now. The children can no longer wait for this."
But Izumi points out that in 2009, before the layoffs, more than 95 percent of students at Manual Arts who took the algebra 1, geometry or algebra 2 state exams "failed to achieve at the proficient level."
And Snell noted a little-reported problem with the claims of classroom overcrowding. While it's certainly true that Manual Arts is overflowing with students, elsewhere in the district, L.A. Unified officials are maintaining full staffing at schools with enrollments well below their capacities.
"I know of seven middle schools within a couple of miles of each other downtown that are cannibalizing each other," she said. And while some high schools have lost 1,000 or more students, the district is unwilling to make adjustments for schools in the same overcrowded boat as Manual Arts.
Kyle Olson of the Education Action Group says UTLA's gambit underscores the misplaced priorities of the union and the school district bureaucracy. "What good is figuring out whether or not schools have the best teachers or the appropriate amount?" he said in an e-mail interview Friday. "Are schools designed as a public works projects for adults that need a job or institutions are that preparing students for life?"
"Public school spending is unsustainable because politicians are more interested in looking out for their special interest friends than creating high quality schools that are student-centered," Olson told me. "Artificial fixes such as these will do nothing to improve student achievement but will do wonders for membership levels and dues payments for the UTLA."