The cost of shorter school days

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Everyone agrees that Jerry Brown is taking a huge gamble, putting big automatic education cuts in his budget in the hope that he'll convince voters to approve his tax hikes in November. It may be a wise political move: Most voters in California seem to support education spending, even if they still (wrongly) think the state wastes too much money on other services. And they seem to like teachers, even if they think (wrongly) that most other public employees are overpaid and get overly generous pensions. In other words, if you ask voters whether the state needs more money in general, you might get a No -- but if you ask whether schools should be cut even further, you might get a better answer.

Still: If this thing goes down, California's got a disaster on its hands. Already, local school districts are making deep cuts in budgets that were already way too small. And since everything else is already gone, the main thing on the block is the length of the school year.

It used to be 180 days. Now it's down to 176. And it could go as low as 160. That's terrible for students -- you really can't eliminate class time and not harm education. It's also really bad for working parents who have kids too young to be left alone (and some of us have good reason to believe that even high school students shouldn't be left alone at home all day with nothing to do except get in trouble).

What do parents do when there's an unexpected furlough day that isn't a work holiday? How about if there are suddenly 20 (twenty) furlough days, four full weeks of additional time that the kids aren't in school?

Well, if it's a day or two they take time off from work if they can -- costing both worker and employer money -- or they pay someone to watch the kids, costing the worker money. This isn't trivial for any of us, and it certainly isn't trivial for low-income families. It means some kids will be home alone, which is fine for the Model Middle Schooler, but really, how many of them do we know?

And Jesus -- nobody gets four weeks of paid vacation time. It's already costing parents a fortune to put kids in summer camp for eight or ten weeks; add four more and I don't know what people will do.

So basically, furlough days are a tax on working parents (and their employers). Which means it's a regressive tax that his hardest on those least able to pay. And that's assuming the tax plan actually passes -- if it goes down, expect the furlough days to go up -- and the hidden tax burden on working parents to get worse.

Then there's class size, which is going up now, and could go up a lot more. I've volunteered in the SF public schools and I've seen the difference between a classroom of 20 kids and a classroom of 30, and it's huge. At the K-3 level, more than 20 students in the classroom seriously hinders learning. Even in 5th grade, 30 kids is too many for one teacher.

I realize there's not a lot left to cut in the state budget (although I think I could shift enough money from the prison system to fully fund the schools, but that's not even on the table). K-12 education is a huge ticket and is going to have to take big hits.

And again: As a political move, threatening to hack the legs out from under the state's education system will probably bring in some votes in November. But I agree with Calitics -- it's a really scary bet.

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