DENVER // Jim Rogers is a middle school teacher in central California who loves his job - but if the current cuts keep up, he may be forced to quit. "People don't realise how much a teacher puts into the daily job," he said. "If the cost of living keeps going up and the teacher's salary does not, well, I don't know what we will do."
Tuitions are rising. Teachers are being sacked. And the largest state university system in the United States is reducing enrolment. Welcome to California, where a state budget crisis has turned students into the latest victims of the US economic downturn. Education costs chew up almost half of California's budget, which is largely funded from taxes on stocks and businesses in the state. In September, after months of going back and forth, California legislators passed a controversial 2008-09 budget, which is supposed to guarantee full funding to the state's public education system, including the University of California and California State University (CSU).
But when the stock market went into free fall, California developed a staggering budget deficit. At least 29 US states are grappling with similar tax shortfalls, but California's deficit could grow as high as US$22 billion (Dh81bn) by early 2009, more than the entire budget of many states and even some small countries. To try to meet the shortfall, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the California governor, has outlined a series of emergency measures, which include boosting the state's sales tax for three years and cutting the state education budget by almost $3bn.
"There is no way to deal with a budget problem of the magnitude we have without cutting education," said Daniel JB Mitchell, an expert on the California budget at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA). Many in California are already feeling the pinch. This week, high school seniors across the state were racing to complete applications for CSU, a network of 23 campuses, which announced plans last week to cut enrolment by 10,000 students for the fall 2009 semester.
In advertisements running on California TV channels, student websites and the online video forum YouTube.com, CSU put out word that students have until Sunday to file their applications. "Don't waste time, because time is running out," warns the YouTube video. Many families worry how they will afford college at all. State residents in California have traditionally enjoyed some of the least expensive state college tuitions in the country, although rates in May went up by 10 per cent, resulting in student protests at UCLA.
Low-income students, already struggling to cover the increased costs, could be hit hardest if rates rise further, especially since the state schools are also expected to slice scholarship packages. In a recent survey by the Public Policy Institute of California, 64 per cent of Latino parents said they were "very worried" about affording a college education compared with only 29 per cent of white parents.
The cuts have also affected teachers. Layoffs in elementary and high schools have led to student-teacher ratios as high as 32-1, according to the California Teachers Association. Many have seen drastic cuts to custodial services, school lunches and such electives as sport and art. Further painful cuts are almost inevitable, said observers, who predict the state's economy will not improve for two years in the best circumstances.
"These schools just won't get the state money they expect," Mr Mitchell said. "The arithmetic simply won't allow it." At the college level, professors at state universities are being told enrolment is up because many families cannot afford private universities, so they will have to teach more students on less money. "We have been told we won't get the raises our union negotiated, which effectively means we will live on less," said Gabriel Aguilera, a professor at CSU Chico. "Times are tough and they are getting tougher."
Many Californians are demanding Mr Schwarzenegger find other sectors to cut. "California must keep the promise it has made to give our state's students the possibility of a college education," said La Opinion, a Latino newspaper, in an editorial on Saturday. "This should be seen as an investment in the future rather than just a current expense to be cut." Arguing it is the wrong time to shortchange California's students, state officials are reported to be speaking to the federal government about a bailout similar to the one put together for Wall Street.
"It's sort of similar to the proposed bailout for the auto industry," Mr Mitchell said. "The federal government's attitude so far has been, show us a plan to deal with this and we will give you money. And so far they [the state] have not been able to come up with a plan." firstname.lastname@example.org