California is spinning backwards into quite a perilous place the more it cuts education spending, digging itself into a rut that will have a devastating impact on its economy for many years to come. 

The $17 billion slashed from schools and colleges in the last two budget years is manifested this year in fewer instructional hours, school closures, larger class sizes and crowded classrooms.

Recent reports of an alarming spike in the number of school districts unable to meet their financial obligations over the next two years means more schools will be seeking emergency loans from the state to keep their doors open. Instead of saving money, the state will be sinking further into the muck of its current fiscal crisis.

According to the California Department of Education, 126 school districts have been recently placed on the watch list of the first interim status, 2009-10 fiscal year. Of those, 114 were assigned a qualified certification, meaning they may not meet their financial obligations for the current or two subsequent fiscal years. Another 12 districts received a negative certification, meaning they will be unable to meet their financial obligations for the remainder of the current year or for the subsequent fiscal year.

The first interim status, 2006-07 fiscal year listed just three districts with a negative certification, and 19 with a qualified certification. That’s an astonishing 572 percent increase in the number of school districts in serious financial straits today.

Before districts reach that point, most have already sought help from the county superintendent and the Fiscal Crisis Management Assistance Team, which reviews the district’s finances and recommend a course of action, usually steep spending cuts and sometimes school closures. School districts in serious trouble may request an emergency loan from the state through legislation, but it is a desperation move because in all cases they relinquish control of the schools to the state, which usually fires the superintendent and relegates the school board to an advisory role.

Between 1991 and the end of last year, eight school districts had received emergency loans from the state totaling more than $140 million (a mixture of state General Fund and loans collateralized by the district’s assets) and six had outstanding balances.

Yet, this may not be the end of it. The governor has proposed further slashing education spending by $2.5 billion.

Some communities whose PTA fundraisers can’t come close to closing the funding gap are considering raising their own revenue to at least narrow the gap. The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, for example, is asking voters by mail to support a parcel tax that would, in part, preserve classes in art and music.

The Los Angeles Unified School District — the second largest in the nation, and one of the districts with a qualified certification — announced March 27 it would chop five days out of the school year this year and seven from the next year.

Fewer instructional days give teachers fewer opportunities to impart the knowledge students need to meet the state’s high standards. While we are moving backwards, other nations like China are steadily advancing. The developing nation provides 30 percent more instructional hours per year for its students, than California. Fifty years ago, that may not have mattered much, but in this global economy, the nation with a higher educated work force will be a far greater economic power than the one that lags behind.

This ought to be raising the hair on the back of the necks of every Californian!

For our children who have the misfortune of being squeezed into classrooms with more pupils per teacher, fewer resources and fewer days to learn, there is no second chance. As most teachers know, once a student falls behind it is very hard to catch up. 

If we don’t stop divesting in education and invest more, California will also fall behind other nations’ educated labor force while the Golden State’s unemployment rate — currently pegged at 12.5 percent by the state Unemployment Development Department — will soar. We may find ourselves stuck in a hole so deep it may be near impossible to hoist ourselves out.

Julia Brownley is the state legislator representing the 41st Assembly District, which covers the city of Santa Monica. Brownley served as the president of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District. She can be reached at her district office: (818) 596-4141, (310) 395-3414, or (805) 644-4141.

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