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California Schools Quake From Budget Cuts

From budget gaps, to teacher layoffs to growing class sizes, California schools cannot catch a break.
David McNew / Getty Images
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From budget gaps, to teacher layoffs to growing class sizes, California schools cannot catch a break.

As California tries to fill a $26 billion budget gap, any solution is likely to involve more cuts in education spending. The state's public schools have already been hit hard with layoffs, canceled programs and overcrowded classrooms.

It's a big change from the days when California schools were in the nation's top 10 in achievement and money spent per pupil.

Take Birmingham High School, part of the Los Angeles system, in the city's San Fernando Valley. Like many high school graduations this summer, students wearing bright blue caps and gowns streamed onto the football field to the strains of "Pomp and Circumstance" played by the school band.

It takes two hours, for 720 students to cross the stage to get their diplomas. But one-quarter of the senior class didn't make it. That's actually an improvement — not long ago, the dropout rate at Birmingham was 50 percent, which was quite a downfall for a school that used to be one of the best.

Becoming A Charter School

As Lance Johnson watches his daughter graduate, he talks about how crowded Birmingham has become.

"It's twice as hard to get the same level of service when there are twice as many kids at the table," Johnson says.

Next year, because of budget cuts, it will get worse. Some classes will have more than 40 students.

"You're going to have a lot more drop out, a lot more upset parents and a lot more people saying the system doesn't work," Johnson says, expressing the frustration of many parents who have children in the system here.

Just before the ceremony, Johnson and several Birmingham officials went to the Los Angeles School Board meeting to say they'd had enough. They wanted Birmingham to break away from the district and become an independent charter school.

Principal Marsha Coates says that will allow Birmingham to manage its own finances, avoid getting caught up in the district's bureaucracy — and allow the school to fire bad teachers.

"If what you are doing is not working, you have to stop. You have to do something different. What we are doing is not working," said Coates.

Many oppose Birmingham becoming a charter, but everyone agrees the school needs help. And this is hardly the only school struggling with low student achievement.

Economy Bleak, Education Bleaker

UCLA Education professor John Rogers says discontent over public education in California is at an all-time high. The state's schools used to be ranked among the nation's top 10. But Rogers says California schools are now ranked in the low 40s in almost every academic category.

"There have been some estimates that by 2025, California will have this dramatic shortage of college-educated and professionally educated workers for the jobs that the California economy requires," Rogers says.

Instead of trying to fix public schools, California is now forced to make drastic cuts. In Los Angeles, the district just fired thousands of teachers, raised class sizes and canceled summer school, except for kids who need to retake failed classes to graduate.

Back at Birmingham High, this summer's Algebra 2 class is full. Jennifer Alicia Serrano says she's frustrated by the crowded classes and the lack of even basic supplies.

"Sometimes they will give me books that are really, really, bad. Sometimes they are ripped and we should have more computers. We don't work with computers here," Serrano says.

Serrano's Algebra teacher, Rick Prizant, has been teaching at Birmingham for 25 years. He's watched the general state of decline, not just in the classroom, but everywhere.

"When I first started teaching, the room was mopped clean and swept every day. Now, if the trash cans are taken out once a day it's like that's what you can expect," says Prizant.

Prizant isn't just a teacher, he's also a Birmingham alum, Class of 1972. Back then it was a different place: mostly white and affluent. Today, the school qualifies for federal assistance. More than 60 percent of the kids get free lunches. The student body is 70 percent Hispanic, typical of most schools in L.A.

Principal Marsha Coates says it's a challenge meeting students' needs these days.

"One girl told me she needed to increase her hours at Carl's Jr. [a fast food chain] to help her parents make the rent. And we have kids staying home with younger siblings, kids whose parents are ill, never heard of so many kids that face such adversity," Coates says.

Coates is trying to remain hopeful. Birmingham did get the green light to become a charter school. It may not solve all the problems, but it gives the school something Coates says it didn't have before: a chance.

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Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on