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California students face tight budgets at school and at home, UCLA reports

March 21, 2011 |  1:18 pm

Principals at public high schools in California report that the sour statewide economy has had increasingly dire effects on their campuses, leaving students to face continuous budget cuts at schools while struggling families deal with the remaining effects of the recession, according to a UCLA survey of school administrators released Monday.

To that end, state Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson also released a report Monday that showed 2 million students -- or 30% of pupils -- in California attend a financially troubled school.

In the UCLA survey, conducted by the Institute of Democracy, Education and Access, 74% of responding principals told of dramatic increases in class sizes, with some nearly doubling. Summer school had been reduced or cut altogether at 65% of schools. Half of the schools reported a significant reduction in their ranks of counselors.

One principal in Riverside County said her budget was so tight, the school couldn’t afford the frogs for a biology class to dissect (the school bought only one frog, which the students watched their teacher cut open).

While the effects of budget cuts are felt on campuses, the principals said their students also are feeling  increased economic hardships at home: 75% of principals said they’d seen an increase in homelessness among their student population; 56% saw increased food insecurity.

The UCLA report is “a wake-up call for California and its leaders,” Torlakson said in a conference call on Monday. “We have to invest in education again and start to turn things around.”

The UCLA  survey questioned 277 principals across California selected to represent the geographic and economic diversity of the state. Researchers then followed up and interviewed 78 principals, reflecting the same diversity.

Todd Ullah, principal of George Washington Preparatory High School in South Los Angeles, said the school had managed to raise test scores, attendance and college-enrollment rates despite the budget cuts. But he said he’d had to rely on contributions from the community to keep those efforts going.

But, like many principals across the state, he said he had reached the point where further cuts would inhibit his students’ education, and there aren’t other sources of funds left to tap. “Under the current budget scenario," Ullah said, "it’s going to be very difficult to ask people to do more with so much less.”

Paula Hanzel, principal of New Technology High School in Sacramento, offered a dire warning: The state’s failure to invest in education and continued cuts are “mortgaging our future” in California.

In her own school, Hanzel said that the “impact on the kids is really starting to show.”

“We’ve cut as much as we can cut at my school without, quite frankly, giving blood,” Hanzel said. “I wonder when people in the state of California will realize you get what you pay for.”

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-- Rick Rojas

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