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Eastin and Thomas Call for Longer School Year, But Part Ways on State Budget Compromise

By Jeff Hudson - March 27, 2009

Former State Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin got into something of a debate with California’s current Secretary of Education Glen Thomas, as well as education finance consultant Bob Blattner, in a lively discussion on Monday.

The occasion was a forum in Davis, organized by the Yolo County School Boards Association.  The event drew quite a few notables, including Gavin Payne (Chief Deputy Secretary of Public Instruction), Harold Levine (Dean of the School of Education at UC Davis), and others.

Eastin came out swinging regarding education funding in Sacramento. “The reality is that this state budget is a disaster,” she said flatly. “Shame on California, shame on a budget that says we are going to put other things ahead of kids.”

Eastin blasted Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for spending too much on prisons and not enough on schools. “I weep for our children today, our children going into a future with so little support from the adults of California.”

“We’re 50th (out of 50 states) in the ratio of counselors, nurses and school psychologists to students. You get the picture?” Eastin said. She suggested that the state budget situation is so bad that “we’re talking about which one of our children to sell” in order to keep money in the budget.

Eastin said she’s so unhappy with the state budget compromise that she intends to vote no on Proposition 1D, which is one of six budget-related ballot measures that will go before California voters in a special election on May 19.

She added that many teachers are spending $3,000 to $4,000 out of their own pocket to purchase classroom resources that ought to be provided by the state.

And she blasted Gov. Schwarzenegger’s proposal to shorten the school year by five days (to 175 days), saying that the school year should actually be longer, along the lines of 200 days in school that is standard in many European countries, or the 220 days in some Asian countries.

“You think I’m mad? I’m really mad,” Eastin said.

Harold Levine, after hearing Eastin speak, remarked from the podium “As we can see, the gloves are off.”

Thomas – who once worked under Eastin – offered a much gentler, measured response to Eastin’s blistering critique. As might be expected (considering that he was appointed in January by Gov. Schwarzenegger), Thomas offered a defense of the budget compromise, while allowing that it was not exactly ideal.

“We can all find something we don’t like” in the final budget deal, Thomas said. But he stressed that “if we’re not all focused on the May 19 special election, we are going to have a lot of other problems to deal with.”  If the six budget-related ballot measures aren’t approved, state government will face a renewed budget battle, he indicated.

Thomas also worried about the lack of public awareness about the special election, which is less than two months away. “The average person doesn’t know there’s a May 19 election, much less that there are initiatives,” Thomas said.

“If we don’t pass those initiatives on May 19, we have a whole new set of problems on May 20,” Thomas said, adding “It’s very important that we focus” on the election.

In addition, Thomas said he’s concerned about the big round of pink slips that went to California teachers by March 13.  (The California Teachers Association estimated roughly 27,000 teachers were noticed for possible layoffs.) “We tent to lose some of our young teachers. They don’t like getting pink slips, they want stability. They’ll either leave education, or move on to private schools.”

Thomas said another concern is a possible loss of progress in narrowing the achievement gap. “It will be easy to slip backwards during times like this” when school budgets are being cut, he said.

Thomas said that while “it would be nice to talk about new revenues” to the state, to support education, the reality is that “we have what we have” and “we need to have a balanced budget.”

“We have this special election, and that’s what we need to concentrate on,” he said.

Thomas even found some points where he could agree with Eastin, saying “we need more instructional time, we probably need a longer school day, and certainly need a longer school year.”  But he offered no hint regarding how a longer school year might be funded.

Eastin and Thomas also agreed that more flexibility is needed with funding of categorical programs.  Eastin even offered the candid opinion that “every categorical program was created by a good person trying to do the right thing. But California has more categorical programs than anyone, managing small pots of money. . . I think most categoricals should be eliminated, frankly. In the end, we have a lot of them that don’t have an evaluative component. And the control is now in Sacramento” where too many legislators and program managers “tend to be rather ham handed with the broad brush.” Eastin said she’d prefer more local control of categorical funds.

Eastin, Thomas and Blattner mixed it up on the topic of Class Size Reduction (CSR).  Eastin, who was an architect of  K-3 class size reduction during her years as State Superintendent of Public Instruction (1995-2003), defended CSR as an important priority.  Thomas agreed that “teachers like it, parents like it,” but said that districts may need some leeway in the current financial climate.  Blattner said that there is little research that shows improved student achievement when class size reduction is applied across the board, and suggested that the current K-3 Class Size Reduction program “is a luxury” that effectively takes money away from other education programs that have a more proven record of success.

Eastin also weighed in on possibility of a state constitutional convention. “It’s a good idea, but I don’t know if it’s going to work,” she said. Given the current partisan deadlock in Sacramento “we are almost rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” right now, she added. “We can’t just keep putting things on the ballot” for voters to approve. And she reminded listeners that “any time you approve something (like a ballot proposition supporting high speed rail), half the money is going to come from K-12 education.”

Editor's Note: Jeff Hudson is the editor of EdBrief and an award-winning education reporter and writer in print, radio and television media.