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Education Budget Senate Subcommittee Testimony

Prepared remarks by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson before the Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Subcommittee No. 1 on Education on March 7, 2012 in Sacramento.

Thank you Senator Carol Liu, Senator Ted Gains, and Senator Roderick Wright, for the opportunity to be with you today.

We are reeling from previous cuts. As you work to craft a budget, I would urge you to keep in mind the financial state of emergency facing California's schools, and the absolutely critical need for new revenues. Nearly $22 billion in cuts owed back over the last four years have driven school districts across the state to the brink of insolvency. This does not include mandates or settle-ups.

Two million students—one of every three children in California—attend school in a district that is in financial jeopardy as of 2011. That number would be even higher, but for the deep cuts schools have made by crowding classrooms with 35 and 40 children; laying off thousands of teachers, classroom aides, librarians, counselors, and nurses; cutting bus service, summer school, music, art, drama, and sports programs; and putting off school maintenance, as well as the purchase of up-to-date textbooks and materials.

California has reached a crossroads. Our hopes and dreams for our children are as high as ever, but our investment in them is lagging far behind. And the best of intentions are no substitute for the resources our schools need. It is time to consider what California's role is in the lives of its children, and then provide the support necessary to carry out that commitment in our schools.

I view the success of Governor's November revenue initiative as a vital and essential step in that process, and I urge you to build your budget assuming its passage. Passage of his initiative will not restore the deep cuts that have been made. But it will prevent the crisis in education funding from deepening, and begin to reverse the long, steep slide of the last few years.

Turning to the budget proposal itself, I commend the Governor for his proposal to begin repaying the state's enormous debt to schools, particularly his proposal to pay down $1.8 billion in deferrals. Deferrals have the same impact on schools as a cut in funding—and have made the task of managing cash flow extremely difficult for our schools. At a time when schools are being forced to cut core services, it makes no sense to also expect them to shoulder the interest and other expenses that come with these deferrals.

I also commend the Governor for adding his weighted student formula proposal to the range of options to be considered as we move to a new era of school finance focused on student outcomes. Moving to a weighted student formula was a key recommendation of my Transition Team in our Blueprint for Great Schools. And it is consistent with the goals of Assembly Bill 18 by Assembly member Brownley, which I am pleased to sponsor.

While there are a host of policy considerations to take into account—and I support a full vetting of these issues in policy committee—the essential logic of directing greater resources to schools with the greatest need is undeniable. But it also raises fundamental questions. As we move away from categorical funding, how do we measure our progress toward statewide goals?

Any plan to replace our categorical funding system with a new weighted student funding formula must be accompanied by improvements to our system for holding districts accountable for outcomes. How much can be measured with data? How much can only be assessed first-hand, at a school or in a classroom?

I look forward to working with you, as well as the Governor and the State Board of Education, as we consider these issues. There are, however, aspects of the administration's proposal that are cause for serious concern.

First, are both the deep new cuts proposed for child care and the misguided proposal to divorce these services from child development and early learning. As I told your colleagues in the Senate last week, I find myself surprised that we are even having this conversation—that this can be up for debate.

These proposals fly in the face of literally decades of research into the benefits of strong early childhood education programs. Everyone from business leaders to law enforcement and neuroscientists to teachers agrees on the inherent and long-term value. It's a simple choice—invest in kids early, and reap the rewards of a better-educated, more productive workforce and a healthier state, or pay the price later—with more high-school dropouts, and more young people headed for trouble.

The Governor's childcare proposal takes two fundamental steps in the wrong direction—and toward dismantling California's high-quality childcare system.  First, the magnitude and design of the cuts would simply break many of the small businesses that form this critical infrastructure of service providers. These programs have already been cut severely, losing nearly $890 million in funding over the last four years—leaving 100,000 children unserved.

As you know, this budget proposal would cut them by an additional $500 million—and as many as 62,000 more children would lose services. The cumulative impact of these cuts since 2008 would amount to a 42 percent loss of state funding for childcare.

The administration's realignment proposal is equally flawed. It is realignment for realignment's sake—with nothing to show for it, and plenty to lose.

There are no cost savings. In fact, the Administration's proposal would cost $35 million this year in up front, increased administration costs, before the realignment even starts! There is no long-term policy rationale. We already have a strong local system carrying out this work. Why would we turn our back on proven research, cast a successful local system aside in favor of another inexperienced one—and spend $35 million to do it?

As we work to protect early learning, I also want to emphasize my full support for the transitional kindergarten program. As we speak, school districts across the state are ramping up this historic new program in preparation for the upcoming school year. While the Governor's proposal to expand our voluntary pre-K programs for four-year-old has some merit, the impacts of the entire proposal should be weighed carefully in policy committee.

More broadly, I am also deeply concerned about proposed cuts to a variety of school programs—as well as programs that benefit students. At a time when we will be asking Californians to tax themselves to protect schools from further cuts—it's important that the budget actually offer that protection.

But a number of the administration's proposals would actually represent reductions in support—including the proposal regarding school mandates and the $1.8 million cut proposed to repairs at our State Special Schools for blind and deaf students.

I'm equally concerned about cuts to non-Prop. 98 programs that benefit schools, including the AVID program and funding for Early Mental Health Initiative.

Beyond these specifics, I'm also profoundly concerned about both the scale and design of any proposed trigger cuts—and the impact they have on our schools. Because school districts must meet their own obligations to balance their budgets—trigger cuts have an impact on schools, whether or not the triggers are ultimately pulled. Districts have no choice but to assume that any proposed trigger will be enacted—and they are drafting budgets now that reflect the administration's proposal.

Given that, it is both unfair and harmful to force schools to bear the brunt of any trigger cuts—yet that is what the administration has proposed—with 90 percent of trigger cuts -- $4.8 billion set to fall on education. The design of these cuts is equally problematic, particularly the proposal to shift the debt service for state school bonds under the Proposition 98 guarantee. The result would be a massive, mid-year reduction that would do great harm to our schools. But what's more—shifting this cost within Proposition 98 could permanently impair our ability to enact future school bond measures.

As I said earlier, California has come to a crossroads point. Across the state—despite the deep cuts that have been made in recent years—students, teachers, parents and communities are still working valiantly to learn, achieve and make progress. It's up to all of us to match their dedication and commitment with a budget that keeps faith with their hard work and high hopes.

Thank you.

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