Monday, March 15, 2010
San Diego's schools are bracing for more budget cuts. We'll find out just how bad it may get as school districts begin planning for the next academic year.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. As California schools brace for more cuts from Sacramento, we got the bad news early this month that our state did not make the cut for federal Race to the Top money. Winning the grants could have meant millions for financially strapped California schools. And this weekend we’ve heard the Obama administration plans to make big changes in the No Child Left Behind program. Joining us now to talk about those changes and our state’s stumble in the Race to the Top are my guests. Jack O’Connell, California State Superintendent of Public Instruction. Jack, welcome back to These Days.
JACK O’CONNELL (Superintendent of Public Instruction, State of California): …having me, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: Richard Barrera is president of the San Diego Unified School District's Board of Education. Richard, welcome.
RICHARD BARRERA (President, San Diego Unified School District, Board of Education): Thanks, Maureen. Glad to be here.
CAVANAUGH: And Ana Tintocalis is KPBS education reporter. And good morning, Ana.
ANA TINTOCALIS (KPBS Education Reporter): Good morning.
CAVANAUGH: We’d like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. Were you surprised to hear California was not in the running for Race to the Top school money? You can give us a call with your questions and comments. That number is 1-888-895-5727. Jack O’Connell, let me start with you, if I may. Have you had a chance to look at or review any of the changes the Obama administration’s proposing in the No Child Left Behind program?
O'CONNELL: Only through media reports, Maureen. We were not briefed ahead of time but it’s not anything different from what we had expected. I’ve had an opportunity to meet with Secretary Duncan several times both in Washington, D.C. and also here in California. And pretty much those concepts that were contained in the Race to the Top as priorities, the better utilization of data standards, how can we recruit more teachers, and the emphasis on performing – on increasing the performance of our lowest performing schools, we knew that that was going to be wrapped up in the reauthorization of what we tend to call No Child Left Behind. He also let me know in kind of a humorous story, under no circumstances would he refer to it as No Child Left Behind, the negative stigma that that has, the significantly underfunded. So it’s – from what I’ve heard through media reports, it’s very much consistent along the same lines as what was going to be a priority for the Race to the Top.
CAVANAUGH: Now what we’ve heard from Arnie Duncan, the Education Secretary, is that grade level profiency, that that focus on grade level proficiency, they’re going to back off that a little bit to ensure that students are ready for college or a job. Is that the change in emphasis that you’ve heard?
O'CONNELL: That is going to be a real emphasis. Again, that was pretty similar to the application process for Race to the Top. We had anticipated that, and I think it’s the right way to go. You know, under No Child Left Behind, frankly all of our schools were being set up for failure. We’re just not going to have 100% proficient, you know, in three years and we know that. That should be our goal but we – you have to question an accountability system where, you know, nearly 100% of your schools were going to be failing within the next couple of years.
CAVANAUGH: Now, so why was California then not picked by the Obama administration to receive Race to the Top funding?
O'CONNELL: Put me at the top of the list for being very disappointed, very surprised. We have yet to see the scoring. The analysis from the evaluators, I’m told, will be in our hands in the next two or three weeks. Over 40 states applied, 15 states were recipients. We were not one. And we moved mountains to try to be eligible. I thought we put together a very, very good application. We worked closely with the governor’s office. My office helped take the lead on it, as we’re required to do and as we should. And we’re very disappointed, very surprised. And yet, you know, I was really motivated, not as much for the potential money that California would have received. And, you know, $700 million over three years sounds like a lot but not when the schools are operating today on nearly $18 billion less than we had anticipated just two years ago. And even the governor’s own proposed budget where he stated he was going to hold education harmless is nearly two and a half billion dollars below where it should be. So I was motivated as much for the Race to the Top process as the systemic reforms that were contained. There were really four areas, better utilization of data, a focus on standards, deeper standards and internationally benchmarked, and then how can we get more teachers and our – or leadership, school leadership to the lowest-performing schools, and the Obama administration is rightfully big on turning around the lowest 5% of our schools. And then it’s, you know, the fourth is really on that focus on low-performing schools. What other changes can we make in addition to recruiting more and retaining some of our best and brightest, you know, professional educators to these more challenging schools.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Jack O’Connell. He’s California State Superintendent of Public Instruction. And of course, Jack, one of our guests here is Richard Barrera. He’s president of the San Diego Unified School District Board of Education. There was division among school districts including San Diego Unified, which did not apply for Race to the Top about creating a more unified standard to education within the state. Now I’m wondering, how many other school districts had that problem with going on with the application to Race to the Top?
O'CONNELL: Well, Maureen, we had over 800 LEAs, that would be school districts and charter schools that were supporting our efforts and I don’t know if we should have received even more, if that was – is going to be held against us in the final analysis to getting to the second stage. But we – And we admittedly started a little bit late. The information forthcoming was late. And I’m concerned if there’s a round two, well, there will be a round two. I’m not sure California will participate. We may, depending upon the analysis that we get back from the evaluators. But, again, we won’t get this information until early April and then the deadline is June first and so, again, a very rapid turnaround. But we had over 800 school districts. I understand the concerns that some districts had and the absence of additional funding, that’s a legitimate concern. But, again, I thought it was moving in the right direction, and I knew the reauthorization of the Elementary Secondary Education Act, these same four principles with a small ‘p’ would be contained in this effort.
CAVANAUGH: And, Richard, let me ask once again, you were on here, we talked about Race to the Top before. What was the problem that San Diego Unified had with complying with the requirements to apply for that federal money?
BARRERA: Well, we had several problems with the process of the state application for Race to the Top. One, and, you know, Secretary O’Connell is correct, that might’ve simply been unavoidable, was just the rush to put it together. So at the time we were being asked to sign on to an MOU to Race to the Top, we didn’t have any identification of which, if any, schools in our district would be defined as lowest performing. So without understanding which schools, you know, we were talking about, it was very difficult for us to sign on to a set of strategies that might not have made sense to a particular school. And I think as we’ve now seen the definition of, you know, the, quote, unquote, lowest performing schools—and there are five schools in our district that are on that list—the strategies that are being sort of prescribed to districts to address those schools to do turnaround become even more confusing. And we can talk through, you know, giving the specific situations of some of those schools but I think our biggest issue is that you have to base reform strategies or turnaround strategies on the individual circumstances of schools, what’s actually going on in those schools, and you’ve got to engage those school communities in a process of, you know, identifying what’s the best way to turn these schools around. And we didn’t feel that the Race to the Top application in the first round from California allowed any of that to happen.
CAVANAUGH: And, Ana, just so we’re clear on that, there are a lot of school districts in the county. I’m wondering, how did other school districts approach this application process?
TINTOCALIS: Right, well, there’s 42 school districts in San Diego County and fewer than half actually signed onto the state’s application. The biggest school districts, of course, were San Diego Unified and Ocean – Oceanside. But there was a collection of charter schools that signed on. We had, in San Diego, the High Tech High cluster organization – or the charter school group organization, King Chavez Academy, that’s in Barrio Logan. They signed on as well. So I think we saw a lot of charter schools. In terms of other school districts, in the South Bay you had Chula Vista and Sweetwater, those are big school districts in that area. In East County, you had Vista and El Centro, all the way out in Imperial Valley. And then on the coastal side, you had Del Mar, Coronado and Cardiff. So you did see some representation from San Diego County but I think it was a factor that two of the biggest school districts in our county did not sign on.
CAVANAUGH: And Secretary O’Connell, Jack, I’m wondering, when you say we may not apply for those funds again, I was – I thought that was a done deal, that we were definitely going to reapply in June.
O'CONNELL: Not a definite done deal. It requires three signatures to be eligible. I’m one of the three, and I want to wait and see if the – you know, what their analysis is. If they said for some reason, you know, some obstacle that we cannot overcome prevented us from qualification, frankly, I think it’d be senseless. And it did take a tremendous amount of staff time, a tremendous amount of effort, and our department took the lead and, you know, we’ve experienced cuts like everybody else and reductions, and so that decision has yet to be made. I think it’s simply premature. And I want to see exactly what the, you know, criticisms were, their analysis from the evaluators and if it’s – if there are issues that we can address and overcome, then I – you know, I’d be inclined to move on and dedicate whatever staff we can, again, and go for round two. But if it’s simply going to be a exercise in futility, and if there are comments that we cannot overcome, I don’t see that it’s worth it.
CAVANAUGH: Well, today is also pink slip day for California teachers. I’m wondering, Jack, how many California teachers will receive pink slips today. Do you have any idea?
O'CONNELL: Our estimates—and school districts are not required to notify us but we have been, you know, working with the larger school districts and our estimates today is – will be right in the neighborhood of 22,000 pink slips will actually be sent out statewide by the end of today. Last year, 16,000, roughly, teachers ultimately lost their jobs. These are really dreams and careers that are shattered because of the lack of adequate funding from Sacramento. We lost over 10,000 classified personnel and, I’ve been told, about 1,000 administrators as well. You know, this at a time when we’re asking more of our schools and particularly some of our more challenging schools, and it’s just really made some very difficult if not impossible decisions for, you know, well-meaning, smart, good people, school districts, that really have no choices other than to, you know, go into this layoff mode. So here we are about a month away from our statewide standardized tests where we’re asking – which are high-stakes tests for these schools and we’re asking these teachers to do more at the same time, you know, we’re sending out these layoff notices that, quite frankly, shatter a lot of dreams and careers.
TINTOCALIS: And – This is Ana Tintocalis. I just wanted to add these are tentative layoff notices. I think the word gets bandied about pink slips, this is pink slip day. I think this is the day that school districts indicate that they might lay off so many teachers. So I just don’t want to create alarm because many of these layoff notices get rescinded toward the end of the budgeting process. We saw this in San Diego Unified where, you know, they said a whole bunch of teachers are going to get laid off and then once they figure out how this is all going to figure into their budget and other cuts considered, then they are able to rescind a lot of that. So I just want to let the public know that these are layoff notices not official pink slips.
CAVANAUGH: Jack, do…
O'CONNELL: And, Maureen…
CAVANAUGH: Yes, go ahead.
O'CONNELL: …Ana’s absolutely correct. I just do want to point out one difference which she also knows, and that was last year we had a nice infusion from the federal economic stimulus money of about two and a half billion dollars and that led to about half of the – these preliminary pink slip notices being rescinded. I’m not optimistic that we’re going to see, you know, half of these pink slips being rescinded.
CAVANAUGH: So, in other words, based on what you just said about 22,000 going out, you think more than 10,000 teachers across the state might actually lose their jobs in September?
O'CONNELL: You know, it’s – My crystal ball is hazy but that very well could be. In fact, last year, my recollection is we were right around 30,000 of these preliminary pink slip notices going out—again, Ana’s absolutely correct—and then the final decisions are made once the budget’s passed, whenever that might be. But, again, the big difference between last year and this year is public education had a nice, one-time infusion of federal stimulus money, about two and a half billion dollars, again, that my office had the lead responsibility for and that’s when – where we were successful. This year, we’re going to receive second phase stimulus money, less than $250 million.
CAVANAUGH: We have to take a short break and when we return, we’ll continue to talk about education including San Diego Unified’s new search for a superintendent. And when we return, we’ll also take your calls at 1-888-895-5727. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.
CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. And we’re talking about education, a lot of education stories this morning. My guests are Jack O’Connell is California State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Richard Barrera is president of the San Diego Unified School District's Board of Education and Ana Tintocalis is KPBS education reporter. And before we had to go to a break, Richard, I was talking about the pink slips that are being sent out across California today to basically put teachers on notice that their jobs may be at risk. They don’t know. It’s a sort of preliminary thing. Is – Are teachers in San Diego Unified going to be getting any pink slips?
BARRERA: Not today, Maureen. We, for the second year in a row, have figured out a way to balance our budget for the coming year that would not require pink slips for permanent teachers, teachers who’ve been in the school district teaching for more than two years. And, you know, again, I think Secretary – Superintendent O’Connell was very clear in – Receiving a pink slip, there’s a consequence to that to simply receiving a pink slip because it puts your whole future in jeopardy. You don’t know what’s going to happen to you as a teacher. Your principal doesn’t know if you’re going to be available. Your students and parents don’t know if you’re going to be around. It really creates a tremendous amount of stress on schools right at the time, as Jack was saying, that schools are going into high stakes testing. So we have just recently come to agreement with our teachers union, San Diego Education Association, that requires significant concessions from the union. I think it’s really the first time in a long time that the union has come to an agreement that includes concessions. Unfortunately, we’re going to see five furlough days in the next school year and another five furlough days in the following school year, in addition to some health benefits concessions. But because we were able to come to this agreement prior to today, prior to this March 15th deadline, it means we’re going to be able to get through this again without having to issue pink slips to permanent teachers. There’s still the question of will we need to issue pink slips to some probationary teachers, teachers who’ve been at the district for less than a couple of years. The answer to that is probably yes. We’ve got a month to determine whether we’re going to be able to incorporate, you know, just from normal attrition keep as many of those teachers, you know, in our school district as possible. But it’s likely that over the next month we might need to issue some pink slips to probationary teachers.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Richard, I know the San Diego Unified came in for some criticism last year. By not laying off any teachers, you were accused of cutting too deeply into support staff and services. That criticism will most likely come up again considering you’re cutting even deeper into that. How do you reply to that?
BARRERA: Well, I think there’s – I think that criticism, frankly, comes from folks who just don’t like teachers’ unions. I mean, I think there’s – You know, I think we just need to be blunt and honest about, you know, the debate that goes on within schools. I think folks that, you know, have criticized our district for being able to get through these budget crises without issuing pink slips to teachers are just very out of touch with where parents and school communities are. The last thing that school communities want to see are teachers lose their jobs. What we’ve done, in fact, we have not cut into services or support staff. We’ve also protected, you know, key programs for kids in the class – We’ve protected arts education, we’ve protected outdoor learning like 6th grade camp, we’ve protected sports, we’ve protected the GATE program, we’ve protected magnet schools. What we have done is taken a very serious look at our central office administration and we’ve made a lot of cuts there, and we figured out that, you know, over the last decade plus, when times were not as bad as they were today, and even, you know, where – times where the district had surplus money, that money was, you know, going into places that nobody could identify. We found where that money was going and we found that in terms of our priorities as a district, you know, we need to make sure that kids in the classroom are priority number one, that their needs are being served, and where we’ve got a lot of, you know, programs in the central office that maybe in good times we might want to pursue, but at a time like this, you know, we’ve got to make some choices. And so for the second year in a row, we’ve made significant cuts to our central administration through really a painstaking process, you know, led by our interim superintendent and our staff, to turn over every rock and figure out where we can avoid cuts to the classroom and we’ve been able to do that again. Now, you know, Jack O’Connell’s very correct that we’re going to lose our federal stimulus money after next year. In the 2011-12 year, that money goes away. And if we don’t successfully advocate to the federal government to help us and we’re in the same situation that we’re in now, we are going to start to see deeper cuts, you know, to our classrooms and to the things that kids really care about in the 2011-12 year. So what I would really hope our leadership in Sacramento is doing, and I know Jack O’Connell is doing this, but the governor and the leaders of our state legislature, the focus in terms of our relationship with the federal government right now needs to not be on these sort of tinkering around the edges, quote, unquote, reform proposals that, you know, as Jack said, take up tremendous amount of time of his – and energy of his staff. We need to be advocating successfully to the federal government that if California continues to be in this financial crisis going forward, we’re going to need more help, you know, from the federal government.
CAVANAUGH: And, Ana, I do want to ask, how are other school districts around the county handling this idea of pink slips and cuts?
TINTOCALIS: Right, there are common themes when you look across the county what school districts are doing. The main couple of things are furloughs and so you see a lot of school districts asking their teachers and workers to take so many days off during the school year and it’ll be interesting to see how that is structured within the academic school year for next year, like where do these days fall into place. Layoffs, we’ve heard a lot about that. San Diego Unified will not be issuing official pink slips but when you take a look at La Mesa/Spring Valley School District, Santee, Lemon Grove, Vista, all these school districts are indicating that they will probably lay off some workers. You also have what San Diego Unified did last year was having these kind of early retirement incentive plans. More districts are looking to that and this is a way to give veteran teachers kind of an extra incentive to leave the district, and that’s a way to kind of avoid layoffs. And then you also have this negotiation with teachers’ unions to increase healthcare costs like co-pays at the doctors’ office. So these are kind of the common elements. I did want to go back onto a point that Mr. Barrera said. I think they are thinking about cutting 300 probationary teachers and another 300 temporary teachers, is that correct?
BARRERA: We potentially would need to be making reductions of between 250 and 300 teaching positions total, so not 300 temporary and 300…
BARRERA: …probationary. And we’re hoping, again, that we’re going to be able to offset a number of those cuts through, you know, just getting a notice about teachers that are planning to retire, teachers who are planning to go on leave. If we can do that then we can minimize the number of our probationary teachers that would be receiving pink slips.
TINTOCALIS: Yeah, and school districts are saying, you know, we’ll – we might have to cut these teachers that – the new teachers, basically. They’re – they don’t have many years in the district and so they simply just don’t renew the contract. And I’ve heard a lot of people out there saying it’s a silent layoff because you’re not officially handing them a pink slip but you’re basically saying don’t come back next year because we don’t have any money for you.
CAVANAUGH: Superintendent O’Connell, I’m wondering, you mentioned the fact that the governor spoke out against education cuts during the State of the State address and they want a constitutional amendment to make sure we don’t spend more on prisons than on higher education but what kind of – Are you expecting additional cuts to education funding?
O'CONNELL: I certainly hope not. The reality is that we’re looking now at even less money, you know, for the budget year, looking forward, 2010, 2011, than we are this year, about two and a half billion dollars in the governor’s own budget. And when you really break it down, I mean, Richard has very eloquently, again, stated the options that school districts have. The reality is, statewide, we’re going to have fewer nurses, school nurses, fewer school counselors, fewer school librarians, and these are critical players in our educational delivery system. We’re going to have fewer classes in the arts and music, career technical education, sports, longer bus rides for some. In fact, I was giving a speech to a bunch of Rotary Clubs in Ventura County and I said longer bus rides, a superintendent stood up and – from a rural district there, interrupted me and said, Jack, just wanted to let you know we’ve eliminated all bus service altogether. And this is in a rural area. I mean, you wonder what that’s going to do to our dropout rate and to test scores when it’s even more difficult for students to get there. You look at school districts that are being forced to eliminate summer school or certainly significantly curtail their efforts, and these are learning opportunities that will never be made up. These are lost forever. The shorter school year, at a time when the president and Secretary of Education Duncan talk about a longer school day so we become more competitive with not just other states from California’s perspective because other states do go 180 days or more and now we’re reducing that to even fewer. And then other countries, when you look at our industrialized countries, three-fourths of them go to school much more than 180 days, some 220 days, and that’s just putting California at an economic disadvantage when you’re looking at other schools. And class size, I mean…
O'CONNELL: …I wrote the law. Governor Wilson, I always say was great coming up with the money over a decade ago and I was in the legislature for class size reduction, and it really – and we know it works. Study after study, the lead studies out of Tennessee, a recent one just this year from one of the big ten schools, I forget, Michigan or Purdue, and they say, again, how effective class size reduction can be and yet we’re seeing the largest class sizes we’ve ever seen.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s take a phone call. Jim is calling us from San Ysidro. Good morning, Jim. Welcome to These Days.
JIM (Caller, San Ysidro): Good morning. My question was regarding the RIF letters that went out to teachers in the San Diego South Bay Unified School District regarding that they are possibly on the short list and these are teachers that are part of the bilingual and the English classes and as well as foreign language and geography. And I was wondering if he’d like to just answer why these core teachers are being put on the short list?
CAVANAUGH: Okay, thank you, Jim. And I want – He’s calling from San Ysidro. That’s not San Diego Unified, is it?
BARRERA: No, that’s the South Bay…
BARRERA: …School District. But I think Jim’s point is well taken. You know, it’s why this is so devastating, you know, to be talking about laying off teachers. You know, we’ve got – you can’t – You know, this idea that you can somehow protect kids by hurting teachers is just silly. Teachers are in there performing, you know, part of the most difficult job in society and certainly the most important job in society and if you look at, you know, what Jim is talking about in South Bay, we have, you know, many bilingual programs, you know, in San Diego Unified. We have a high number of kids who come into our district needing to learn English and we have to protect the teachers who are qualified to help those kids learn English and make progress. We can’t turn our backs on those kids because if we do right now, you know, it’s not just one year, it’s that kid’s entire future could be affected if, you know, if he or she doesn’t have a decent bilingual education right at the time that, you know, that the student needs it the most.
CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you, Richard Barrera, the search for a new superintendent for San Diego Unified is in the works. And I’m wondering, how is this search different than the previous ones? And just to put that in context, we have had some very short term superintendents that the Unified has had to deal with over the last few years. So what are you looking for in terms of a new superintendent?
BARRERA: Well, I think that question is something we’re putting out to the community. So the first thing that we’ve done is we’ve put together a committee, a task force of three citizens each that were appointed by each of the five board members, so we’ve got a great search committee. We’ve got parents, we’ve got a student on the committee, we’ve got a principal on the committee, teachers, community leaders, we’ve got the head of the Chamber of Commerce and the head of the Labor Council both on the committee. So the idea is to bring together, you know, sort of the, you know, representatives of all the different constituencies in our district that really care about our schools, and now we’re asking that committee to go out and we’re going to hold a series of town hall forums where we invite, you know, parents and students and community leaders to come out and tell us what are we, you know, what are the qualities that we’re looking for in a superintendent. San Diego has had, you know, way too much instability, you know, over the past decade. I would say that, you know, part of the theme of what we think is so important in our district is during a time of incredible instability and change from one superintendent and one philosophy to another over the past five years, our schools have been making steady increase. You know, so you’ve seen our test scores in math go up 25% over the past five years and in literacy 25%, in science 100%. The schools are – have been doing their job, you know, during this time of instability at the central office level. So we need to figure out, you know, how we’re going to get some stability in the central office and I think we’re going to be looking for some leadership that understands that there’s tremendous work going on at the schools and we’re going to want somebody that can go out, listen to what’s working, and help, you know, bring those ideas, you know, to the district as a whole.
CAVANAUGH: And as education reporter, Ana, what do you hear that parents and teachers are concerned about? What issues are important for them as the San Diego Unified searches for a new superintendent?
TINTOCALIS: Well, Mr. Barrera hit on it, is stability. They want stability basically. Time and time again, that’s what I hear. They want someone who, I think, they can trust. I mean, because the last superintendent, former Superintendent Terry Grier, there was this feeling that he was doing things behind closed doors. It wasn’t open and transparent. They really want that within the district. They want someone who can work with the school board. We hear time and time again these conflicts with the school board, whether they’re founded or not founded, but that seeps into the psyche of the public. So they want someone who can work in a collaborative nature and they want someone who will stay for the long haul.
TINTOCALIS: You know, people are tired of this kind of what they call the revolving door of superintendent leadership and they want someone that they can – that will be a partner with them in the community, so that’s what I’ve been hearing so far.
O'CONNELL: This is Jack. If I may, I…
CAVANAUGH: I wanted you to comment on this. Great. Thank you.
O'CONNELL: Richard, I think Ana would be a great superintendent for you.
BARRERA: We’ve been – there’s actually a secret behind closed doors plan to draft her, Jack, you’re exactly right.
CAVANAUGH: No, but, Jack, as superintendent of the state, what should – give us the long view here. What should school districts be looking for in hiring new superintendents?
O'CONNELL: Richard and Ana hit it very well. You want a individual who will make decisions, all the decisions, what’s in the best interests for the students. Our job’s really relatively simple when you peel back the onion. We need to create that learning environment so that each student can learn to his or her full and maximum potential.
CAVANAUGH: Well, I – We are out of time. We’ve covered a lot of ground and I want to thank my guests so much. Jack O'Connell, California State Superintendent of Public Instruction, thanks for speaking with us.
O'CONNELL: Thank you, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: And Richard Barrera is president of the San Diego Unified School District's Board of Education. Thanks again.
BARRERA: Thanks a lot, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: And Ana Tintocalis is, for the time being at least, KPBS education reporter. Thanks, Ana.
TINTOCALIS: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: If you’d like to comment on anything that you heard on this segment, go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. Coming up, women flyers from World War II finally get their honors. That’s next as These Days continues here on KPBS.