Survey Shows How California Schools are Coping with Budget Cut Pains
New America Media
Faced with budget cuts, K-12 public schools in California are grappling with terrible choices about what should get the ax. A new survey of almost 400 schools finds the cuts over the last two years were felt everywhere from grounds upkeep to instructional material to school nurses.
The online survey, administered by the California Department of Education, asked administrators in county offices of education, school districts, and charter schools about how they balanced their budgets in light of state budget cuts to public education.
“The survey found that administrators made a valiant effort to make cuts in areas that affect students the least,” said Tina Jung, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Education. “School administrators sacrificed themselves in order to preserve services for students.
By “sacrificing themselves,” Jung is referring to the 58 percent of survey respondents who made cuts to district administration, such as secretaries, assistants, and assistant principals.
California schools have weathered $17 billion in cuts to funding for education over the last two fiscal years.
The survey, administered in April 2010, asked administrators to report cuts in programs and reductions in staff and school year over the last two school years. The 387 local educational agencies surveyed represent 1.7 million students, or 26 percent of the statewide enrollment. Maintenance, district administration, and instructional materials were where the cuts hit hardest.
The survey found that 48 percent of respondents have cut counselors, nurses, and psychologists in schools.
Nurses are among the first to go because many school officials don’t understand the critical role they play in students’ lives, according to Nancy Spradling, executive director of the California School Nurses Organization.
Gone are the days when a nurse waited in an office for students to come in with a bloody nose or scraped knee. Today, a California school nurse oversees case management of chronic illnesses, health counseling, health care service referrals, vision and eye care screenings, and a litany of other health-related services that students need.
In fact, for economically disadvantaged students, the school nurse is sometimes the only person they see for health care.
“A student might break an arm on Saturday but wait to see the school nurse on Monday because her family doesn’t have insurance to cover a doctor’s visit,” said Spradling.
As of the 2008-09 school year, there were 2,901 nurses working in the state’s 10,223 schools. However, since California schools aren’t legally required to have a nurse, on any given day, 7,000 schools don’t have one on the premises.
Cutting nurses impacts the classroom more than some people might realize.
“A kid with a mouthful of rotting teeth is not going to be able to do well in school,” Spradling pointed out.
Almost half of surveyed California schools (48 percent) said art, music, and drama programs were cut.
“When you take away motor learning, physical aspects of student life like music programs and art programs, these restrictions affect a student’s learning process,” explained Rica Rice, youth employment services program coordinator at Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center.
It is the lower-income students who, again, lose out the most from cuts to arts programs. “High-income parents can pay for private classes for their kids, but not all families can afford to subsidize extracurricular activities out of their pocket,” said Rice.
Spradling said that while school nurses have been getting cut throughout the last 10 to 12 years, in recent years counselors and psychologists are getting pink slips as well.
Without counselors, teachers must now take on the job of identifying what issues students are dealing with and what services are needed—in addition to teaching a classroom of students full-time, according to Rice.
“Many of the youth I work with don’t have health insurance and suffer from medical disorders or issues with depression and anxiety, all of which require the attention of counselors and therapists and nurses,” Rice said.
“Where are these students going to go for these services elsewhere?” she asked.
More than half of the surveyed schools have cut instructional materials, presumably because schools won’t be getting any money to update them anymore.
Last fall, the governor issued a five-year suspension on revisions and adoption of school instructional materials. This means students in public schools today will not receive newly adopted textbooks and multimedia until at least 2017.
“Due to the suspension on revisions, students in school today may not read about President Obama in history textbooks for more than five years,” said Tina Jung.