Thursday, May 14, 1998
From standardized tests to the end of bilingual education, what to do about the sorry state of California schools has been one of the most hotly debated issues of the political year, and strong political currency for those office seekers savvy enough to tap into the public''s frustration with the faltering school system.
Now add to the fray Prop. 223, a June ballot initiative that backers say will improve classrooms by streamlining school bureaucracies.
Dubbed "95/5" by its proponents, the Educational Efficiency Initiative requires school districts to limit administrative spending to just five percent of their total budgets or face heavy fines.
Backers of the initiative, among them LA Mayor Richard Riordan and US Senator Dianne Feinstein, contend it''s the only way to ensure that students get the most out of every education dollar but opponents say the proposed law is confusing and will end up hurting small districts that can not possibly meet the new caps.
"This initiative simply requires that schools put children first," says Tyrone Vehetti, one of the authors of the initiative. Vehetti wrote the initiative, he says, "because I was tired of hearing about low test scores and not enough money. I felt like it was time that we got as much as possible into the classrooms."
The average school district in the state spends about 7.3 percent of its budget in the central office. According to the Legislative Analyst''s Office, the measure could shift $700 million directly into classrooms in its first year.
After similar legislation failed in the state legislature in 1994 and 1995, Vehetti started Children''s Rights 2000, which is working with the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) to pass Prop. 223 and plans to introduce legislation next year that would establish a statewide after-school tutorial program.
Vehetti paints a grim picture of California schools today. "California is really the bottom of the barrel right now. I think of it as a war and the classrooms are the front line. That''s where the money should go."
Making California schools competitive with those of other states, says Vehetti, demands cutting some of the fat from bloated administration budgets.
"I am absolutely tired of the whining of school administrators who claim that they can''t do payroll and educational planning on $2 billion while our children are doing without air conditioning, services like school nurses, sports and music programs or even basic supplies," says Vehetti, adding, "The kids have certainly had to live without for long enough. Can''t the poor cry-baby administrators do without for a change?"
Some of those administrators have their own take on the 95/5 formula. "Absurd! What does 95/5 mean anyway? It is just a number that is not based in reality. The proponents of this initiative just made it up because it sounds good," says Julie White, spokesperson for the Association of California School Administrators (ACSA).
White points out that the California education code already limits the ratio of administrators to teachers--the only state in the nation with such a law, and according to a report from the National Center for Education Statistics--only Utah has a lower proportion of administrators to teachers.
"If you think that the people who design curriculum are just part of some bureaucratic bloat, then how are we supposed to educate kids?" says White.
ACSA says large districts like the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) would benefit disproportionately due to economies of scale that make it easier to hold administrative costs down. Fines paid by districts that cannot make the cuts would ultimately flow into the large districts, leaving smaller districts high and dry.
But it is not entirely clear that even large districts like LAUSD will find it easy to make the changes the proposition demands. According to Vehetti, LAUSD would have to shift nearly $70 million to meet the new caps.
Proponents, however, insist that administrative budgets can be trimmed without cutting essential services.
"There is absolutely no intent to change what goes on at the individual sites. This is really about middle management, the kinds of positions that teachers look at and ask ''What do they do?''" says Mary Jo Pokriots, president of the San Jose Teacher''s Association.
San Jose is a large urban district with about 32,000 students. Until 1997, San Jose teachers had gone five frustrating years without a pay raise. "At the same time, we saw administrative spending increase inordinately," says Pokriots, adding that four years ago central office costs had climbed to over 8 percent of the district''s total budget. "We really felt that teacher''s were not getting the money they needed right into their classrooms," says Pokriots.
Threats of a teacher strike ultimately won a 3 percent pay raise this year, forcing the district to cut back on administrative spending, but Pokriots says that administrative spending caps are the only sure way to keep spending in line. "The only way to keep a district honest is for [the caps] to be codified in the law," says Pokriots. "Our children shouldn''t be sacrificed to the growing bureaucracy."
But opponents claim that Prop. 223 does a poor job of defining what is bureaucratic fat and what areas are vital to running schools.
"This is one of the most poorly drafted initiatives I''ve ever seen. It doesn''t differentiate between a payroll clerk and a person in a suit at the district office," says Dave Low, with the California School Employees Association (CSEA), which represents most of the classified employees, including office staff and maintenance workers in the state.
"It''s easy to beat up on administrators and this probably sounds awfully good to a lot of people. Unfortunately, if this passes, about 95 percent of school districts are going to get hurt."
Low claims that the initiative would cost schools $900 million dollars in fines for not complying with the spending caps. On top of the fines, Low says, anywhere from 15-30,000 classified workers could lose their jobs.
Dave Gordon, superintendent of the Elk Grove Unified School District near Sacramento, calls Prop. 223, "just another abuse of the initiative process. If there is any sense to this thing, I fail to see it."
Elk Grove district has 43 schools with about 41,000 students. Administrative spending in the district is about 6.9 percent, not far from the state average. But the thought of having to make the changes has Gordon frustrated.
"This is only going to make us spend more money on a problem we don''t even have," says Gordon. Like other opponents, Gordon is critical of what he sees as the self interest of the UTLA in pushing the measure.
"I''m baffled as to why they want to foist this off on other districts. I''m definitely not pleased that someone in LA wants to tell us how to run our district. If they have problems in LA, they should work it out in LA."
Both the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers have voted to remain neutral, and they''re tight-lipped on the measure. It is likely that the statewide teachers unions are hoping to avoid straining the coalition of teachers and administrators that came together to defeat school vouchers four years ago. Both the CTA and the CSEA are also heavily invested in the fight against Prop. 226, the so-called "paycheck protection act" that threatens to seriously hamstring labor''s ability to make political contributions.
CSEA''s Low concedes that the fight over 95/5 could have come at a better time. "This has definitely made it more difficult to fight Prop. 226. We could have been more effective if it were not for [Prop. 223''s] drain on our resources." cw