In summary

The cut in funding for public schools in California due to COVID-19 will cause irreparable harm to our children and our state.

By Austin Beutner and Cindy Marten, Special to CalMatters

Austin Beutner is superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School District, Austin.beutner@lausd.net. Cindy Marten is superintendent of San Diego Unified School District, cmarten@sandi.net. They wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

There’s no way to sugarcoat it: The unprecedented interruption of the current academic year will create learning loss for hundreds of thousands of children across California. For some – including the poorest and most vulnerable – that loss will be severe.

The Covid-19 pandemic and its associated economic fallout pose the most serious challenge to public education in California history. 

Last week, the Department of Finance issued a preliminary estimate of a 20% cut in funding to public education that would cause irreparable harm to our children and our state. That is not hyperbole. At that reduced level of spending, California could not afford to safely reopen its schools this fall. 

Education leaders have warned that the “Covid Crash” will be far worse than the widely acknowledged “summer slide” that many students experience during summer break. Megan Kuhfeld and Beth Tarasawa of the Northwest Evaluation Association concluded that students will return to classrooms with roughly one-third less learning gains in reading and 50% less in math relative to a typical school year, and “in some grades, nearly a full year behind what we would observe in normal conditions.”

Here’s why that matters: Those learning losses are likely to persist during a child’s entire academic career and extend through their lifetimes. A child who does not learn to read by third grade, for example, is significantly more likely to drop out before high school graduation or be incarcerated as an adult. The stakes could not be higher.

Operating with little financial wiggle room even during the best of times, public schools started 2020 with serious reservations about the proposed state budget released in January. The proposed budget cut the cost of living adjustment and failed to address the rising costs of pensions and Special Education. 

That was before COVID-19 hit. Now school districts are confronted with the significant additional costs of equipping students for remote learning, training teachers for online instruction and feeding millions of the state’s poorest families.

San Diego Unified has spent more than $25 million providing more than 50,000 students with computers and serving close to 1 million meals to families in need. Los Angeles Unified has served about 18 million meals and invested more than $100 million in devices and internet access for its 500,000 students. 

The mission is both essential and daunting: Provide continued learning in the most difficult circumstances imaginable. Doing so requires entirely retooling an education system without gaps in instruction or major layoffs or furloughs that could produce prolonged economic depressions in the communities we serve and where we are among the largest employers.

In response, the state has one measure, Senate Bill 117, which provides relief amounting to less than 1% of our annual budgets. Implicit in every budget is a series of choices made more difficult when dollars are scarce. But they are still choices that elected officials in Sacramento must make, and the consequences will be seen across all parts of our lives.

Opening schools is necessary for the long-term economic health of California. When and how schools reopen will require extensive planning and collaboration with our partners in organized labor, who have served on the frontlines of the Covid-19 crisis in public education. 

School districts cannot plan for what comes next without substantial and sustained investment. Californians must work together to find a way to do the extraordinary things necessary to deliver on the promise of a great education for every child enrolled in a public school.

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Austin Beutner is superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School District, Austin.beutner@lausd.net. Cindy Marten is superintendent of San Diego Unified School District, cmarten@sandi.net. They wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

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