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State School Supt. Jack O'Connell Discusses Impact of Budget Cuts

State School Supt. Jack O'Connell Discusses Impact of Budget Cuts
How will state budget cuts affect schools in San Diego, and throughout California? We speak to the California State Superintendent of Public Instruction about the cuts that schools will face, and about the overall health of the state's education system. We also talk to O'Connell about the free summer lunch program that's being offered at local schools.

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. The governor and the California legislature have finally agreed on a plan to close the state's $ 26 billion budget deficit. And while this is good news, it is also painful news for the state's education system. The state budget deal includes a cut of $6 billion to elementary and high schools and community colleges, plus more than $2 billion from state colleges and universities. And this comes in addition to more than $11 billion cut from school funding just last February. And California students will be feeling those cuts by way of larger class sizes, no new textbooks, a shorter school year, higher school fees and many other cost-cutting measures adopted by local school districts. Any way you look at it, this is a challenging time for California's education system, and it could be, in fact, a precarious time for the future of our children. With these deep budget cuts, can California live up to its commitment to close the achievement gap and keep up progress in student test scores? And quite simply, will the young people of California get a good enough education to face the academic and career requirements ahead? Well, with me to discuss the issues facing the state’s education system is my guest, Jack O’Connell, state Superintendent of Public Instruction. And welcome to These Days, Jack.


JACK O'CONNELL (California State Superintendent of Public Instruction): Thank you, Maureen. Very nice to be here again.

CAVANAUGH: And I’d like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. What are your concerns about your children’s education during this time of shrinking education budgets? If you’re a teacher, tell us what the budget cuts mean in your classroom. Give us a call at 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Well, Jack O’Connell, your press release on the budget deal and the education cuts in that deal, basically said it’s bad but it actually could have been worse. So how bad is it? How bad are these budget cuts?

O'CONNELL: It’s bad, it’s painful. Maureen, these cuts are going to be seen, they’re going to be felt, they’re going to be realized. They will adversely affect our educational delivery system. There’s absolutely no doubt about it. And, as you accurately point out, these cuts are on top of – the schools are operating today on over $11 billion less then we had anticipated as a result of the February budget agreement between the legislature and the governor, and then to experience another $4.3 billion in real cuts and then the $1.7 billion in deferral money, which that’s where the $6 billion that you reference comes to, that’s very painful. The net result’s going to be, clearly, larger class sizes and that pains me in particular. I wrote the law. Governor Wilson was very good on class size reduction and I wrote the law for the K-through-3 program for 20-to-1 and really am the architect of our modest high school class size reduction. And I desperately want more class size reduction, not less, so we’re moving in the wrong direction. But we’ll have fewer nurses, fewer counselors, fewer librarians, the shorter school year in many districts as you pointed out, and – and today we have 42 states, just looking at the United States, that have kids go to school longer than we do and it just makes good common sense; if you want our students to be able to compete, not just with students, you know, from other countries – from other states, but from other countries, you know, we need to provide those learning opportunities more. Summer school, in the state, nearly eliminated and certainly significantly scaled back. And we’re going to have fewer classes in the arts, music, athletics, career technical education, which is very, very painful. But that said, you know, I’m pleased that we can now tell our school districts you know how little money you’re going to have, you can now plan. So there’s some finality, there’s some certainty. I’d like to spend the next four months, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And, you know, I’m wondering, as you – California and the governor and the legislature are so verbal in their support of education in this state. I wonder if you feel, in a way, that this budget has been balanced on the back of the education programs in California?

O'CONNELL: The answer is yes. A disproportionate cut has been made to public education. Now Prop 98, which the voters passed 20 years ago to provide a minimum floor for public education, has quite frankly became (sic) the target and the ceiling for public education and that’s not what it was designed to do. It was designed to provide some stability, some predictability. But there have been some manipulations in Proposition 98, and education just has not been the priority, you know, in Sacramento. The governor had proposed, at one point, to suspend Prop 98 and actually go below that floor. And, you know, I’ve just been disappointed in the – you know, the absence of that commitment to the future. I mean, it’s real clear to me, if you want to invest in the future, you invest in education. If you want to shortchange the future then you shortchange public education. I mean, the Democrats held out. They want, you know, to see more money go to public education but one of the, you know, real functional parts of public policy that needs to be changed in Sacramento, and what leads to the dysfunction of public policy, the two-thirds vote requirement. And you need two-thirds to do almost anything in Sacramento, to pass a budget, to generate more money, to pass an urgency bill, to do a constitutional amendment, to place a school bond. And when you look at just the budget, 47 states have a simple majority vote. The United States Congress has a majority vote budget. Every school district in our state, all thousand of them, a little bit more, every city council, every board of supervisors, every public entity that we have, special district, they are all simple majority votes, and we should be in California as well. And my position’s always been, you know, there are kind of two schools of thought you hear in Sacramento when the budget’s late. Some people say, well, don’t pay them if there’s no budget. And other people say, well, we need a majority vote budget. And I’d like to bring the two together and you have a majority vote budget and if it’s not passed, don’t pay the legislature.


CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with state schools chief Jack O’Connell and we’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. We do have a call from Natasha in San Marcos. And good morning, Natasha. Welcome to These Days.

NATASHA (Caller, San Marcos): Thank you, and thank you for taking my call. I wanted to call because my daughter is an entering freshman at San Francisco State this fall and we’re already seeing many impacts to her experience there. And it looks as if, at a minimum, she would have to attend at least five years in order to obtain her degree because of the way that classes are being cut. So when people are talking about impacts to education and the costs connected, I haven’t really heard very much discussion of the fact that in order to get through a four year undergraduate degree, that’s really becoming nonexistent and students are going to have to bear the cost of a five-year degree in order to be able to get the classes that are required for them to meet the requirements of their majors.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for that call, Natasha.

O'CONNELL: Natasha, you’re absolutely correct and that’s why, you know, I’m quite concerned with these large fee increases on UC and CSU and community colleges. It’s going to preclude, quite frankly, a segment of our population from being able to attend some of our outstanding colleges and universities. I’m the first in my family to have that opportunity and, quite frankly, coming from the, you know, middle class background that I came from, I’m not sure my folks, neither of whom went to college, would have been able to set aside enough money and it really wasn’t a priority for us. I was so fortunate to have a couple of great teachers and a couple of coaches that really took an interest and prodded me along in that individual attention but Natasha’s absolutely correct, the four-year degree is really becoming a five-, six-, seven-year degree. Summer school courses at our colleges have been significantly scaled back. Class offerings are being scaled back. Furloughs are being implemented at our systems, and it’s going to be fewer learning opportunities. And this at a time when there was a report that came out just recently that said there are going to be a million more jobs in our state, in California, in the next 15 years that require a bachelor’s degree or beyond. This is a new economy, and it’s a new economy that requires higher level critical thinking skills, analytical skills, problem solving skills. We all have to be technologically proficient. We all need to be better communicators. And while we have this higher level of degree, the demand, we’re cutting back on fundamental public education.

CAVANAUGH: You know, when people hear that the school year is going to be cut by five days, that doesn’t sound like much, but what kind of impact does that – does that have actually on the school year?

O'CONNELL: I’m one that believes that our students could be going to school more, not less, and that sometimes loses me the kid vote, I think, Maureen. But we really do. You know, there – I mentioned earlier, there are 42 states today that go – we go 180 days and it’s going to be up to – just to clarify, up to individual school districts…


O'CONNELL: …to renegotiate contracts with teachers, for example, and classified personnel, to do the 175 days. So if a school district wants to still go 180 days, the state’s not going to pay for it. That’s the bottom line. But if a district wants to try to, you know, maybe pass a parcel tax or jam class sizes to go even higher, you know, more students to go that longer school year. So you’ll have some districts going 175, some may be going 178, and some maybe 180. But 42 states today go 180 days. And we have some countries that are going 220 days and some as many as 240 days. And then you wonder why California, when you look on the, you know, competitiveness scale, economically, I mean, we’ve dropped in the last five years just in terms of our competition. We used to be, as a state, the fifth largest economy in the world when Governor Davis was here. We’ve dropped down to eight and we’re now the eighth, and we’re going the wrong direction. And I want to suggest part of that is the lack of that well-trained workforce. We need to have that analytical workforce, post-high school diploma. I mean, almost every job today requires some type of skill. Everybody’s not going to college and I get that. But career technical education, I’m a big believer. We’ve done a lot in the last several years. Governor’s been great on career technical education. But we need to make sure that these opportunities are available for our students.

CAVANAUGH: Well, you know, as I mentioned in the opening, you know, this $8 billion now cut from the education budget on top of $11 billion earlier this year, and I’m wondering about the cumulative effect of these cuts on state schools. And I wonder if you have thought about is there a point at which the school system simply can’t take any more cuts?

O'CONNELL: And I think we’re there. But I’ll also tell you there are short term impacts that I think are obvious. We talked about them. The class size, the bus rides will be longer, there’ll be more fees charged for athletic programs and field trips, if they even exist, and fewer classes in the arts and music and have to renegotiate pay raises downward for teachers. That’s all short term. But let me tell you the long term is my office has tracked state budgets over the last decade and without exception when we make an investment in education, we see an increase in enrollment in our teacher preparation courses at college and university, like a San Diego State, like a UC San Diego. We then see an increased enrollment but when we continue to cut budgets, when you continue to see the layoff notices, we – school districts sent out almost 30,000 layoff notices, pink slips, and, regrettably, many of those will not be retained – or will be recalled. And so, regrettably, many of those teachers will not be retained. And so there’s always a really commensurate decrease in enrollment in our teacher preparation classes. Now we have a shortage of teachers today in science, math, special education. Some of our urban area core centers, we have shortages, some of our rural areas, and when you see a significant decrease in enrollment in our teacher preparation classes, that’s going to not project well for us long term.

CAVANAUGH: I am speaking with Jack O’Connell. He is state Superintendent of Public Instruction. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Right now, Kadar is on the line. He’s calling from UCSD. And, Kadar, welcome to These Days.

KADAR (Caller, UCSD): Thank you. I’m a grad student at UCSD studying comparative literature and I had a couple of points I wanted to make. First thing is that as a grad student, I find myself having to teach a lot of students who really need remedial course work in the university, and I think this is a big problem in terms of the failure of like, you know, K-through-12 education, and this is kind of a trend that’s happening nationwide as funding gets cut. All those – all the course work – universities shouldn’t be having to offer remedial course work by the time students get there. And that’s one issue. The second thing is, I’m a little concerned. And the university has changed a lot in the past 50 years in the U.S. in general. And certainly state universities have changed and beginning to provide a lot of services that weren’t available 50 years ago so there are all these centers on campus and some – there’s – I mean, I just was wondering if you have a dollar breakup of, you know, how much goes into administration, how much goes into the classroom and things that like that that you could also inform us about, maybe not just in the university but also in K-through-12. And, just for the record, I went to high school in Georgia and not in California.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for your call, Kadar.

O'CONNELL: Thanks, Kadar. And I do not have a breakdown in terms of funding for UC, CSU. I’m more the K-12 guy, although I am a UC regent and a CSU trustee. But – And that always gets a little bit dicey even for K-through-12, Kadar, because it’s what constitutes administration. We need to make sure that we get more dollars into the classroom, that’s for sure. But we also need to make sure that we need to get our kids to school and so you obviously have the transportation issues. We need to make sure that our students are healthy and have access to well-nourished meals and for many of our students the most nutritious meal they receive is the meal that they receive at school, and with the significant cutbacks in summer school, that’s been a big issue and we’re trying to do a lot for the summer meal program that, you know, I’m going to talk about even later today here in San Diego with some folks from the city. And then, Kadar, your other point in terms of the remedial work that the university and CSU system sometimes has to provide, you know, the short answer is you are correct. In the ideal world, we should not be asking UC and CSU to provide, you know, basic fundamental work for our students. But I want to put this suggestion out for you, and this thought, perhaps something you haven’t thought about. Really, the K-through-12 system, historically, has not functioned simply to prepare students for college and university. We’ve always had the disconnect. There’s been a historic disconnect between the expectations of UC, for example, and our K-through-12 students, and many students may not have taken the AP classes or IB or even college prep. Do a couple years community college, get turned on, and then maybe do need some remedial work. And some of our school districts do not provide rigorous, challenging course work that we need, not – maybe not enough A through G curriculum. And we’re trying to change that. I have signed California up, with the support of the governor, with the support of UC, CSU, community college, the career tech community, in what’s known as the America Diploma Project and we have an outstanding individual that I’ve appointed, Dr. Herb Fischer, just recently retired county superintendent, San Bernardino County. And briefly, what the America Diploma Project is attempting to do is to link up our standards so that what the expectations are for UC and CSU, our K-through-12 community becomes aware of and really builds a bridge so that there’s much more progression in terms of what our students are learning so it goes really Pre-K through the university system. So we’re trying to remove that historic disconnect in terms of expectations of UC, CSU and what our K-through-12 students know.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another quick call. Rebecca is calling from San Diego. Good morning, Rebecca, welcome to These Days.

REBECCA (Caller, San Diego): Oh, good morning, and thank you. I’m a teacher of many, many, many years and obviously I’m concerned about the latest round of budget cuts but I see there’s this pervasive problem within education these days and that’s the amount of administrators. And I think with the state’s budget cuts, there should be some requirement for districts to eliminate many of the administrators at the district office level, not the site level. And in addition, what about the BTSA program, which is a program designed to provide additional education to new teachers and if there aren’t any new teachers, why do we need this expensive program?

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for your call, Rebecca.

O'CONNELL: Rebecca, I’ll – maybe, again, I’ll take your second part first, if I may and then get to the administration one. The BTSA program actually is a very successful program. The BTSA program is a program designed to help our first and second year teachers and we have teachers, for the most part, some of our best and brightest teachers, teaching for the BTSA program. It’s designed to be collaborative. You know, there was a survey done about a year ago of teachers asking if you could have any change, what do you need in education? And a lot of us thought money would be the first thing, a salary increase. If you want the best, you got to pay for the best, and I, for one, believe teachers are underpaid. To me, it’s still the most important profession we have in our society. And you can tell I’m a teacher, I think, Rebecca, like you are, and we teach the successful doctors and nurses, the, you know, successful radio personalities, politicians—okay, sometimes we don’t do a good job. Make up your own joke there, I guess, Rebecca. But the BTSA program, I defend. It’s an outstanding program. We still do have more teachers coming into the profession and it really does help our first and second year teachers. In fact, I think we should expand it to help even more of our teachers. I want to make sure our career technical education folks have access to that. With respect to your question around administrators, I’m not aware of a study where we differentiate between school site administrators and district – central district administrators but I’ll tell you this, overall, a statement I can make, is when you compare the number of administrators per student or administrators even per teacher in California, we’re amongst the lowest in the country. To simply say that you could eliminate half the administrators and you’d balance the budget would not be accurate, number one, and number two, you know, we do see a shortage of administrators. I worry about that as well. I saw a study recently that said 40% of our administrators are going to be retiring in the next ten years. And, for the most part, those administrators are going to then come from the teaching ranks which further exacerbates the earlier problem of a teacher shortage. And many districts have, in fact, laid off many administrators to try to help balance their budgets and meet those needs.

CAVANAUGH: And I’m speaking with Jack O’Connell. He is state schools superintendent. And, you know, I want to get something clear about a federal program called Race To The Top. It’s a competition, it allows states to compete for four-point – more than four billion dollars in federal education funds. And I’m wondering, there is – seems to be a controversy over whether California would be in the running to receive some of those federal funds because it has a requirement that teachers’ salaries be tied with the – to the performance of their students. And we don’t require that, or do we?

O'CONNELL: Well, we do not require that nor do I think should we require that from the state level. Here’s the issue. The federal government, Secretary Arne Duncan, gave a speech here in San Diego about a month ago, and also the president believes, that as part of the evaluative process of teachers, we ought to link the success academically of the teachers’ students that we have. California, until just recently, it’s just been about a little over a year now, we have what we call the Student Identifier where we now can actually track students. Maureen, if you had asked me eighteen months ago what’s the dropout rate in California? Candidly, we did not know. We didn’t track students from grade level to grade level. Now we know what it is, and it’s, you know, 20%, and that’s too high, it’s unacceptable, it needs to be addressed. And we knew it was too high. But now we can quantify it because we have this Student Identifier system. Now I do believe that California meets the criteria for this Race To The Top funds. We intend to apply for some of this money. It’s not a lot but every little bit helps. If it was a flush budget year, we might not have to take the time to apply for this. But it’s tax dollars, some of which comes from California, and my job is to make sure we secure every possible nickel from the federal government and every place else we can find for public education. So I think that some of the misunderstanding has been simply that this Student Identifier system is so new to California. There’s nothing that precludes school districts today from using the success of their students on their state standardized tests to be one of many contributing factors towards teacher evaluations. A couple of school districts are doing it today, Long Beach and Garden Grove. And I’m aware of about a dozen others that it’ll be part of their collective bargaining process to be one of a multitude of evaluation techniques for teachers.

CAVANAUGH: So we’re still competitive for that money in your opinion?

O'CONNELL: In my opinion, definitely yes.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, let’s take another call. Lucy is calling from Encanto. Good morning, Lucy. Welcome to These Days.

LUCY (Caller, Encanto): Good morning. Thank you for taking my call. I’m a single parent, raised three sons and put them through private school, struggled. I have two concerns. One is the mythical thinking we have in California as to the cost of education. Every other state that surrounds us has approximately 300 to 500% cost for a class at a community college compared with what we have here. And I don’t think it’s the responsibility of the school to provide a good meal for kids and I don’t think it’s the fault of our teachers in K-through-12 if parents are doing such a poor job at home that kids can’t do well at school, and we’re not going to pay you if you don’t do well, which, you know, the whole concept of performance for pay – And I think that those are two serious – I think we have these whole spectrum where we want our education to be free and we want the schools to be responsible and those – I’m just really concerned because now my grandson is going to be two years old and I’m looking forward to what’s going to happen to his life. So I would – I’ll take my – the response off the air. I admire the work you do. I realize that you have a very difficult position and I wish you the best of luck. Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Well, Lucy, thank you for that. And that goes to really – her question really goes to a fundamental ideology of what is education about?

O'CONNELL: I agree, Maureen, and, Lucy, thank you very much for your kind words and thank you for your commitment to the community. I really do believe that we all benefit by having a well educated, well trained, problem-solving, responsible, thoughtful community. Sometimes I’ll ask my mother, that’s kind of my senior advisor, if you will, on different issues. And my mom, on occasion, has said, well, Jack – and unlike Lucy’s kids and we have some great private schools, and thank goodness we do and I’m a, you know, supporter of our private schools and sometimes that surprises people that the state public superintendent says good things about private schools but some of the toughest questions I’ve ever been asked have been by private schools. But my mom will sometimes say why should I vote for this school bond measure when I’ve already put you and your sister through public school system? And I tell her, I said, Mom, you want to make sure that we have a well trained workforce. You want to find a cure for cancer. She’s been, you know, afflicted with cancer. You want to find a cure for Alzheimer’s. We need to make sure we’re competitive with other countries. Our economy is dependent on it. Your retirement checks, social security, is dependent upon it. So education, you know, you can’t just make the case, and Lucy wasn’t, that, you know, my kids are through and so you can’t – I mean, I’ve oftentimes – I’ve said to my mom, Mom, you still fly in an airplane. She’s not the pilot, she’s the passenger. But she flies. And, Mom, you want to make sure that that mechanic, whom you’ll never meet, is responsible and make sure that that pilot knows how to fix the plane. The air traffic controller, whom you’ll never meet, you want to make sure that he or she is analytical and can make quick decisions. You want to make sure the pilot in the plane—and you might just see the back of his or her head—is using good judgment and is responsible and was getting a good night’s rest the night before this flight. And chances are when we have over 90% of the workers are products of the public school system, that those folks are going to be public school graduates.

CAVANAUGH: And addressing one of the issues that Lucy was talking about, and after you finish this interview, you will be holding a press conference to talk about the Free Summer Lunch Program for local students. Now, what is it that you’d like to tell our audience about that program?

O'CONNELL: The Summer Meals Program is a federally funded program so that students who qualify for free and reduced lunch, and, again, I would respectfully disagree with the previous caller. I think the schools do have an obligation to make sure that students come to school ready to learn and part of that is obviously students have to be nourished and in good physical shape and well rested. And parents are still our most important teachers. Parents are still our first teachers. And it has to be a team effort, really a community effort. But we’re going to be working with city leaders here and with the San Diego Unified School District to make sure that this meal money from the federal government is available throughout the entire summer, not just the first couple weeks of the summer. And so San Diego really has been the model program for our state and so the program – you can go to my webpage, if I may.


O'CONNELL: It’s (that stands for California Department of Education) and you can click on Summer Meal Program and then a map of California appears and then just click on San Diego and we run a list of all of the distribution sites in this community, in this county and Imperial County, all 58 counties, so that you will be able to know where you can go for children who qualify if you qualify for free and reduced meals. And we’ve seen a dramatic increase. Over half of our students in school now qualify as a result, quite frankly, of this recession, this prolonged, protracted, economic recession. So we want students to be healthy not just in school but come to school again in the fall in good physical shape, be healthy, nutritious. It’ll save us in the long run because the reality is we have a silent epidemic of childhood obesity and if we can address that, it’ll help us long term.

CAVANAUGH: And how long will this program actually be going on in these – how long will these meals be distributed this summer?

O'CONNELL: For the duration of the summer, really until school starts again. And it’s been harder for us to reach a lot of the families because summer schools have been either significantly scaled back or, in many communities, totally eliminated. And so in the past we could reach families, we could reach students, and many of the schools became distribution sites for us. But now with the summer school programs ending, we really do need to redouble our efforts to connect with these eligible families. And there’s no questions asked. There’s no application, there’s no waiting, but you can receive a healthy nutritious meal or snack for children 18 and under.

CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you so much for talking with us today. We’ve just run out of time. Thank…

O'CONNELL: Thank you, Maureen. Thank you for having me.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Jack O’Connell, state Superintendent of Public Instruction. And I want to let you know, there were so many people who wanted to join this conversation, if you’d like to continue this discussion online, just post your comments to And These Days will continue in just a few moments here on KPBS.