Page last updated at 14:30 GMT, Saturday, 21 June 2008 15:30 UK

California classrooms feel the pinch

By Rajesh Mirchandani
BBC News, Los Angeles

Principal Marcia Jackman and pupils at Parthenia Elementary School
Principal Marcia Jackman describes Parthenia as an "inspiring school"

As thousands of schoolchildren in California look forward to their summer break, the spectre of huge budget cuts has left many of their parents wondering what the next school year will bring.

"Pick on someone your own size," announces a fearless eight-year-old at Parthenia Elementary School in North Hills, California - a complex of single-storey buildings in the San Fernando Valley, where 85% of students are Hispanic, more than half of them learning to speak English.

The school is in a disadvantaged area: classrooms have metal security grilles on the windows; doors are kept locked; all 730 pupils qualify for free meals.

But that plucky eight-year-old was not facing down a bully. He was taking part in a classroom discussion about courage.

These second-graders have been learning about the Reverend Martin Luther King, and show a commitment to learning that is impressive.

Parthenia may not be a place of academic brilliance, but it is a place of achievement: an improving school or, as principal Marcia Jackman tells me, "an inspiring school".

Nobody wants to lose money, obviously, but they recognise without it people are going to lose jobs
Marcia Jackman
Principal, Parthenia Elementary

Yet she says her school faces budget cuts that will hurt.

"One of the things we're losing is professional development days - so that's 18 hours of teacher training that we won't have," she says.

"And teacher training is so important if you want to change classroom practice and improve student achievement."

In addition, she says class sizes could rise and teachers are being forced to take four days' unpaid leave.

"Nobody wants to lose money, obviously, but they recognise without it people are going to lose jobs."

Budget balancing

In fact earlier this year, when nearly $5bn (£2.5bn) of education cuts were first announced in California, 20,000 teachers were sent "pink slips" warning them their jobs were at risk. It led to demonstrations in several cities across the state.

Since then, state officials have revised their plans. They say core education funding is protected and that most teachers' jobs are safe.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger
Gov Schwarzenegger said the state must do anything to make ends meet

But critics complain everything but the core is being slashed. And teachers' unions say cuts of more than $4bn are still looming.

Once the envy of the entire United States, California's public education system now ranks in the bottom five states for per-pupil funding.

Why is California proposing these cuts? Because with the economic slowdown and falling revenue from sales and property taxes, the state faces a budget deficit that could top $20bn this year.

In March, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger refused to rule out tax rises and deep cuts in services, including education - anything, he said, that could help make ends meet.

"This is not the way to bolster the budget," says Megan Reilly, chief financial officer of Los Angeles Unified School District, the largest single education authority in the state, running more than 1,100 schools.

It must save $400m next year and is slicing wherever it can, including shedding more than 500 clerical staff. The alternative, says Ms Reilly, would be drastic.

"[The proposed savings are] the equivalent of closing 22 high schools. That means displacing about 62,000 students, putting them and converging them in already overcrowded classes in schools. It's a huge cut to education here in Los Angeles," she says.

Parental funding

It is not just schools like Parthenia Elementary, in low-income areas, that feel they could lose out.

A few miles away in Valley Village is Riverside Drive Elementary School. It is in an upmarket neighbourhood, and parents are expected to contribute towards school facilities.

Barbara Bernato says she spends as much as $2,000 each year to provide the school with basics.

Parents at Riverside Drive Elementary School - Barbara Bernato (L) and PTA president Jane Pool
Parents at Riverside Drive resent the increasing financial demands

When I ask her what would happen if she did not contribute, she says: "The kids would not have pencils, they would not have paper. By a certain point in the year they would not have supplies."

She goes on, clearly exasperated: "They would not have physical education. They would not have a computer lab. They have a computer lab that's completely paid for by the parents. They've a computer teacher that's completely paid for by the parents."

Members of the Parent Teachers' Association (PTA) at Riverside Drive estimate they are looking at a 25% cut in the school's operating budget next year.

"We're a poor school in an affluent area," parent and PTA president Jane Pool tells me. She thinks funding cuts will oblige parents to dig even deeper.

"I've heard this directly from the superintendent of schools, because I'm an advocate and I've gone to them. [I said] we need help, we need a new Xerox machine, ours is broken. And his answer to me is 'Oh you'll make the money, you'll buy it'.

"No! I'm not having another cookie sale! You pay for this! How much do we have to cough up? It's unfair."

Some middle-class parents, like Jane and Barbara, feel they're discriminated against: while schools in poor areas get extra federal funding, theirs does not, and they feel the tax revenue they pay to the state is not allocated fairly.

But despite the differences with schools like Parthenia Elementary, it is clear many parents and teachers share similar concerns about the level of all-round education schools are able to provide.

State education budgets will not be finalised for a few weeks. But it is clear, as hundreds of thousands of pupils in California celebrate the end of the school year, many in this state wonder what the next one will bring.

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State profile: California
25 Jul 08 |  Americas

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