Education Cuts – Santa Barbara County Teacher of the Year gets Pink Slip

A victim of California’s deep education cuts in the Spring of 2009, the Santa Barbara County Teacher of the Year for 2006-2007, Mr. Ron Zell, received a pink slip and was informed that his services were no longer needed, in spite of his award-winning programs and amazing contributions to the community of Buellton, California.

When people hear that teachers like Mr. Zell are receiving pink slips, all across California, they express shock and indignation, that is somewhat different from the way that these cuts are discussed abstractly. It’s one thing to say California is cutting 11 billion in education and that 30,000 teachers are receiving layoff notices. It’s another thing entirely for people to learn that their community schools are ending the programs that they’ve had for decades, and that some of their most prized educators may soon be unemployed, with little opportunity to teach elsewhere.

THIS IS WHAT EDUCATION CUTS MEAN.

About 85% of education funds are used to pay for staff. When cuts occur, it is inevitable that teachers and other education employees will lose their jobs.

Some people don’t understand that this 85% ratio is a result of education spending being HIGHLY EFFICIENT. True, we spend a lot of money on testing, some on transportation, some on facilities, etc. But when it comes right down to it, almost every penny of education funds is used to pay for people who work with students. We don’t have enough money to waste. Cuts to education, therefore, directly cut services to kids, reduce course offerings, and make class sizes larger. Conversely, education increases, like those proposed by the Obama Administration, directly increase offerings to students, decrease class size, and make jobs for teachers and other education professionals. California cannot continue to hold onto any hope of maintaining or improving its economy without providing the public services needed by its citizens and demanded by the companies that make or would make their home here.

Ron Zell has written the following letter about his plight, and I would like to share it with you:

Thank you students, parents, teachers, and involved citizens.  Thank-you for being here, for turning out to support teachers and students in this statewide Day of Awareness and support for our schools, Pink Day.


Let me introduce myself, – My name is Ron Zell.  I am the music teacher for the Buellton Union School district.  I teach over 500 students per week in classes from Kindergarten to 8th grade.  I am the 2006 Jonata School Teacher of the Year. I am the 2007 Santa Barbara County Teacher of the Year and a nominee for California State Teacher of the year.  In 2008, I was selected  to speak at State Education Conferences in Sacramento, San Francisco, and the Central Coast.  My topics were “Quality in the arts and in Education”, “Technology in the arts and in education”, and the importance of Community in the Arts and in Education.


In  2009, I have a new distinction. I have received this years token of appreciation from the State of California for my years of service to my students and my community. I have received my pink slip.   This is the way that California shows its gratitude and also its farsightedness in planning  for education   I have been laid  off,  pink-slipped in Buellton.

Myself, and nearly 30,000 or so of my colleagues services are no longer required, says the state.  Colleagues who like myself, give of themselves daily, are over-worked, underpaid, and directly influence the future of millions of young people in this state.  Thank-you very much says California.  You’ve done a great job, but we have mismanaged the finances of this state so badly that we need your help.  Would you just walk away from a career where you are desperately needed, and we’ll ignore the sacrifices that you, and every teacher like you have made daily to bring quality and excellence in education to the students you teach.


We get paid, says the state of California, to govern, and to plan and prepare for the future. We just never thought that there would be an economic downturn.  We thought we could keep spending, and  borrowing, raising taxes and selling lottery tickets, and everything would be okay.  We didn’t think that we would ever be called to account for the billions of dollars we waste each year.  We just kind of forgot about planning ahead for education. After all, – its only kids, and they can’t vote.   Now we HAVE to cut the education budget.  How else do you expect us to pay for our mismanagement.  And you teachers, – You know all of those years of schooling, and training, and experience, and sacrifice and caring and giving, that everyone of you do.  – Sorry about that.  Maybe students won’t notice the over-crowded classrooms that they’ll be forced to be in next year. Maybe parents won’t notice the wider achievement gaps, the loss of programs, the lower test scores, or the unsafe campuses that will result from overcrowding, and too-few teachers.


I can’t conceive of what this state will be like with the undervalued, underfunded and understaffed education system that will result from these budget cuts.  I do however fear that the state will need more money in the very near future for new projects, like the new prisons that it will need to hold these kids who will be dropping out of our failed educational system.  Hey, – Maybe we can even afford to put arts programs in the prisons, because the arts are one of the few interventions that has been proven to mediate violent behavior in abused children.  Too bad  we can’t afford the Arts in our schools now, but then, that’s another part of our state’s not planning ahead.


I am furious that billions of tax dollars go to investors and banks, and insurance companies because they are “too important to our economy to let fail”.  Yet our state can justify taking billions of dollars away from children to pay for their irresponsible handling  of our state finances.  I am not at all politically correct on any of this.   I’m a teacher, and I believe that the only investment that we can’t afford to let fail is the investment in our kids.  Only that investment will  result in positive change for our country, growth in science, space exploration, technology, energy conservation, creativity, the arts, culture and a better future for the next generation.   Without quality education, we are looking at a spiraling  decline in our culture, and in our way of life.


Did you hear my Band earlier.  They’re pretty good, They’re not real good yet of course, because they’re young, they’re learning. They haven’t had the time necessary to fully learn or develop their skills, but they’re working on it.  Some of them have only been playing their instruments a few months, some for 3 years.  Oh they’re getting better, but in this current budget crises, they may never get the opportunity to develop their full potential in music or the arts, or in their creativity.  It takes years of dedication and instruction and practice to become proficient on an instrument, or at writing, or to become a great artist, actor, or dancer.  Of course, now there will be no music program next year, because the state and my district have determined that “my services are no longer required”.


Of all the damage that this new budget will do to education, it is in the arts that it has delivered a mortal blow.  My pink slip is one testimony to that, but right now, around the state as I speak, hundreds of arts programs are being eliminated.  The director of the High School Program here in the Valley has also been given his pink slip.  Building a program takes years.  It has taken me 10 years to develop the program in Buellton to be as effective as it is.  But the state and my district have determined that my “services are no longer required”.  Without  some sort of miracle, the arts in Buellton, or Solvang, or College school district, or the High school or any of the other districts in this Valley will not survive.


I don’t believe that everything is hopeless however.  I’m an optimist like my dad.  I believe in miracles, and miracles was even my topic at one of those state conferences that I spoke at last year.   I entitled it. – “Community, the heart of the Arts”.  If you look around, and walk around the park today, you will find tables, and volunteers already in the business of making miracles.  They’re called volunteers, and donors, and concerned parents and citizens. They support the arts education that occurs in many of the schools in this valley already.


Fourteen years ago I started a non-profit organization called “The Joyful Note Music Education Foundation”.  Its purpose was to provide music in schools in Santa Barbara county that had none. Joyful Note brought the only music that there was  to hundreds of kids in dozens of schools around this county for several years.  After moving to Buellton, I relaxed my efforts with Joyful Note, partly because the importance of the arts was again being discovered by our educational system, and partly because of the strong support for the arts Buellton.  Little did I know that one day, Joyful Note Music would be again be needed to save the music, only this time it would be at my own school.  I never thought that it would be necessary to do the same thing in Buellton that Arts Outreach, and the Solvang Education Foundation, and the High School supporters, and the Valley foundation and dozens of other organizations in this valley have so wisely done for theirs.  That is to keep the arts alive by private funding, and to save yet another generation of children from being impoverished in the visual and performing arts.  Stop by the table over there with material from Joyful Note, and the other organizations that are represented.  Take some information, give them your name, volunteer, donate. Find out how you can help out.  Next year, Joyful Note Music may be the only music program in Buellton, because “my services are not required” by this state

This is ‘Pink Day’, and you are all wearing Pink to protest the idiocy of this annual ritualistic sacrifice of teachers.  I thought it might be good to conclude my talk today by letting you all hear what a pink slip actually sounds like.  This is mine.

“Notice of Recommendation Not to Re-Employ – March 12, 2009.
Dear Mr. Zell, – “Please take note that I have recommend(ed) to the Board of Trustees of Buellton Union School district that notice be given to you that your services will not be required by this school district for the ensuing 2009-2010 school year.  At the regularly scheduled board meeting held on March 11, 2009 the Board of Trustees voted in favor of this decision.


I regret that I am constrained to give you this notice.  My reason for such action is as follows;
The following particular kinds of service will be discontinued or reduced for the 2009-2010 school year: 1. Elementary Teaching – 2.0 FTE,  2. Music – 1.0 FTE.

Because of the foregoing reasons, it is necessary to decrease the number of certificated employees of the District.  You are further notified that there is no probationary or permanent certificated employee with less seniority retained who is rendering service which you are credentialed and competent to render.

Enclosed is a copy of Sections 44949 and 44955 of the California Education Code for your information.  Please take notice that I am recommending that you not be re-employed in this school district…..Very truly yours.  – Tom Cooper, Superintendent.”

I can’t tell you how devastating the emotional effects of a note like this are. Anger, frustration, humiliation, helplessness, hopelessness.  When I received this letter, it was like someone reaching inside and taking my heart out, because my heart is in the music program.   My heart, my passion is teaching these kids, but my State and my district say that “my services are no longer required”.

You know something people, That is a lie.  My services are required, desperately, and so are the services of every teacher in this state who got one of these  pink slips this month. Stop this madness. Fund education and invest in our children.

Oh, – and one other thing.  This Pink-Slip. I intend to send it to  Governor Schwarzenegger, and a copy to my state Representatives, and the Senate and Assembly Education Committees.  What if all 30,000 teachers in the state that got pink-slipped did that.  Maybe that would help them to see the irreparable damage they are doing to our kids. You can help too, write your state representatives and the governor.  Let them know that you think that education is too important to let fail.     Thank-you.

(Ron Zell is also the President of the Buellton Education Association.  You may contact Ron at buellteach@gmail.com or through Joyful Note Music at joyfulnote2@gmail.com)

Pink Friday- Teacher Cuts in California

img_0667

Teachers and Community Members Rallying in Santa Maria

On Friday, March 14, I joined the thousands of teachers, educators, students, and other citizens in the statewide rally “Pink Friday” to protest the California budget cuts that are adversely affecting education. While the new Obama Administration has committed billions in education funding increases as part of the national economic stimulus package, the State of California has committed to undoing any good that may come from these stimulus funds. Tens of thousands of teachers across California have received pink slips, ending their employment in public schools, perhaps permanently, or at least leaving them in limbo for a few months before they find out if they will be hired back for the coming school year.

The reasons for the cuts to education are far from simple. While blame of the minority party in the State Legislature is in order,conservative politics are hardly the only force at work that is bleeding education. California’s system for funding education and other public services, its mechanism for levying taxes, and its process for modifying the state laws governing taxation and expenditures are all contributing factors in this budget crisis. It is a great irony that one of the strongest economies in the world has chained itself to funding mechanisms that sink rapidly in the economic downturn, through over-reliance on real estate appreciation and capital gains taxes.

So, the money’s gone now, but when we did have the cash, we didn’t invest in schools anyway. Modest improvements and increases occurred during the early class-size reduction period and the early NCLB period, and some districts benefitted from State modernization and new construction funds, but schools were hardly high on the hog during the last several periods of economic growth or stability.

California’s per pupil spending is somewhere near the bottom of all the states in the union, in spite of the high cost of living and high costs for providing services such as transportation. I believe the debate now is whether we are in the bottom 5. The U.S. Census data clearly shows California spending far less than many other states, as a tradition, in good times and bad. This spending looks even smaller when compared to the capacity of California’s economy; it’s ability to pay, so to speak.

I’m committed to learning more about the intricacies of this funding and expenditure snafu. The old “third rail” of California’s politics, Proposition 13, has to be looked at as part of this problem. Perhaps touching the charged rail won’t be as hazardous as people believe, a long as we’re careful. In addition, we’ll have to reassess the value of the 2/3 vote in the State legislature on issues of taxation and spending that maintains the tyranny of the minority over California’s resource allocations.

We can’t continue a political system which works against the will of the majority of the state’s citizens, it’s time to return to a democracy.

Innovative Education and California Budget Cuts

The following are my remarks as Santa Barbara Teacher of the Year, at the Grant Recognition Dinner on the 25th Anniversary of the Teacher’s Network.

February 25, 2009

Thank you. It is an honor to be here with all of you in this celebration of all that is good in education. I’m proud to be in the company of so many innovative educators, and all of you who support our field.

From the time I began my career as a teacher, I wanted to be an innovator. I saw education as a broken machine that needed to be fixed. I wanted to do things differently. I wanted to do them better. But, I also assumed that no matter what experiments I tried, or new methods I developed, I would face conflict and resistance from my colleagues and administration at every step of the way.

As is the way of youth, I was wrong, about many things.

My initial forays into innovative education included teaching kindergartners about astronomy, turning a junior high math class into a stock market, and having my science class spend weeks building insect collections. I was never quite sure of the kind of reaction I would get for my different approaches, so I didn’t always advertise what I was doing.

I was shocked at times by the degree of autonomy I was given, and the latitude I had for experimenting with pedagogy and content. I was strongly supported by my colleagues and my administration. I discovered that many of my peers had been innovative teachers for decades. I learned that there are many ways of being a great teacher. I was surprised that people had faith in me.

One day, while my students and I were on an unscheduled field trip to the park across the street, swinging around homemade insect nets, my principal came walking across the street. I was sure I was in trouble. But then she took out her camera and started taking pictures. She was so excited to see the kids outside, exploring their world. She said this was the kind of thing our students needed more of.

I took this to heart, an continued to develop my teaching skills and acquire resources that would help my students learn things they might not learn anywhere else. Working with technology. Building robots. Learning to program. Camping. Visiting colleges. Making movies. All of these things became a regular part of my work.

There’s a Sidney Harris cartoon, where two scientists are facing a blackboard, on which, there are two sets of equations. There is a tangled web of mathematics on the left, and another on the right, and in the middle, bridging the two sets of irreconcilable equations are the words “Then a miracle occurs.” The mess of mathematical expressions on the left side of the board can be imagined to be public education: the courses, curriculum, and structure of schools. The right side of the board and its formulae can be imagined to be one’s life and career.

This is an apt analogy for our system of education.

We provide a certain finite set of inputs through the structure in schools, often insufficient resources and offerings —and then a miracle occurs, —and then our students are ready for college, careers, and their lives.

But what is that miracle?

It’s the work of dedicated teachers; like those of you here tonight.

You are the teachers that go around fixing the school’s outdated computers, or the ones who still take kids on science field trips, or you grow plants from seeds- even when science has been alloted no time in the school day.

These teachers are the ones who apply for grants. They look beyond the day to day obligations and see the bigger picture. They do the things they know are right. They do what’s best for kids. They make miracles happen.

These teachers don’t have to do these things, but they do them anyway.

The teachers in this room, and countless others like them, recognize that in order for us to truly prepare our students to become lifelong learners, we need to provide a wide variety of curricular and extracurricular learning opportunities.

We need to instill the love of learning, and appreciation for the full spectrum of the human experience. We would be foolish to teach only the skills needed for today’s workforce, or to limit our instruction to serving some ideal of the past. We need to teach ingenuity, creativity, and problem solving. As recent history has shown, the skills our students may need 10, 20, or 30 years from now, will undoubtedly be quite different from those they need today.

In high school, I got D’s in Math and English. I credit band, auto-shop, and theater classes with keeping me interested in school and teaching me to appreciate learning. It was these classes helped me stay in school and continue my education to become the teacher I am.

Many of our most vital programs, exist on the fringe of education, outside of conventional funding streams. They continue to exist by the labor of ambitious teachers, and through the encouragement of organizations such as The Teacher’s Network.

We teachers tend to be lousy economists. I’ve estimated that I could cut out half of my work, and still collect 95% of my pay. This is not uncommon. We invest our summers, weekends, and our own money to provide for the needs of our students and classrooms that are not met by the formal structure of education.

I call this “faith-based education”. I don’t mean faith in the religious sense.

What I mean is that, commonly, education policy neglects to provide much needed resources- or fails to institutionalize curricula that students need. For example, in many schools today, we provide very little direct instruction in the accessing, evaluating and proper use of digital information from the internet, yet this is a vital skill for life and knowledge-based careers.

Instead of formally addressing issues such as these, we take it on faith, that somewhere out there, some courageous teacher will pick up the ball and fill in the holes that were made by our omissions of policy or shortages of funding, or that kids will find some way to teach themselves the things they need to know, like the way they’re teaching themselves instant messaging.
But there are some fundamental flaws in a system that relies so heavily on the self-sacrifice of individuals, the altruism of a few.

When we rely solely on faith, that all these wonderful things will continue to happen, sometimes they don’t. In schools where morale is low, where salaries are insufficient, where class sizes are unmanageably large, sometimes the miracle doesn’t happen. Volunteerism thrives in a stable environment.
We should not have to rely on faith that good instruction and a comprehensive curriculum is being taught in all public schools. We need to ensure that this is the case. We need to invest adequate resources, distribute those resources in an equitable manner, and be careful not to impose draconian policies that will inhibit innovative instruction.

I would like to close by drawing special attention to the current budget crisis.

Education is in a precarious position that not everyone is aware of. While the housing market soared, and the stock market was riding high, schools saw little or no economic benefit.

Teachers weren’t collecting massive bonuses or redecorating their offices (we don’t have offices). In fact, many schools throughout this period were dealing with overwhelming class sizes, crumbling infrastructure, and ongoing struggles to provide basic services. Teachers were lucky to get cost of living adjustments, and were even luckier if they managed to keep some health care. Many of us saw real wages fall.

At the policy level, we had to fight tooth and nail to prevent proposed cuts at the State and federal level every year. Unlike the housing market, the stock market, and government revenues, education didn’t benefit from the economic gluttony of the last few years, but when everything came crashing down, the funding for schools went with it.

The current cuts to education are having devastating impacts in schools across the State and in our region.

The Obama administration and the new congress have already begun a massive reinvestment in education at the Federal level, but California’s self imposed cuts may erase any potential benefit from these federal funds. If California cannot find a way to markedly increase investment in education, we may look back on these times and laugh that we were actually trying to improve schools. We might be more likely to reflect on this time as the golden age of education, where every school was labeled as “failing”, but they were all better than what followed. Remember when we only had 35 students in each class? Do you remember art class?

I want to give a special thanks to the administration and board of directors of the Santa Maria-Bonita school district. In the last several weeks, they have done an amazing job limiting the adverse impacts of these midyear cuts. Our administration has managed to find ways to save millions of dollars, largely by altruistically taking on multiple jobs themselves, and by delaying filling vacant positions. They have insulated classrooms and students from this round of cuts, and avoided layoffs of teachers.

Thank you.

Finally, I would like to make a plea to administrators and school board members from all school districts to the same, now and in the future. Do whatever you can to keep these cuts as far away from direct student services as possible. Delay, at all cost, making the cuts that you can’t take back. I didn’t get pink slipped in my early years. I had the stability, encouragement, and time to become the teacher I am today. Please do whatever you can so that others can have that same opportunity.

Be innovative, and maybe we can still have miracles.

Using Psychology to Solve Education Woes

Richard Nisbett authored an opinion piece in the New York Times on February 7, discussing what he saw as common sense approaches to improving education. The piece is not without merits, and is worth reading, but also requires a response:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/08/opinion/08nisbett.html?scp=2&sq=education&st=cse

While I agreed with some of the discussion of psychological effects on testing data and student performance, there were two main issues about this piece that were particularly bothersome to me.

1) Assessment is not learning. The piece discusses “very small influences” that can have “very large effects.” But the majority of the discussion is about psyching kids up to perform on tests. It’s not about instruction, or improving conditions in schools, or protecting student safety. While you don’t want to psychologically harm students through your instructional practices, there are limits to the degree of achievement that can be achieved through changes of perspective and attitude. I’m not opposed to maximizing the benefits of good psychology, I just don’t believe it’s an adequate replacement for fundamental educational improvements.

So now you psyched up all the kids in America to take the tests, they believe that they will succeed. Now, can you convince students that their class is smaller, so they can benefit from that? Can you talk them into believing that their school is safe and well-maintained when it’s not. Can you convince them that their inequitable access to education resources is fair and just? Undoubtedly, techniques such as this will have a negligibly limited effect, like other attempts at gaming the system in the long run,because in time, all schools tend to implement the measures that work to manipulate test data. Once all students are equally persuaded of their test-taking acumen, we need a new way to bridge the achievement gap.

2) Efficiency. We talk a lot about the efficiency of our education dollars, getting the most bang for our buck. But most social services are not effective when optimized for efficiency that is strictly financial. We are not efficient in many other aspects of Federal and State spending, but when it comes to K-12, hairs are split over the tiniest of details. In higher education, they might have to decide between marble and granite for the facade on fitness center. In K-12, we may have to decide that we can only afford one hour a day of instructional assistants in kindergarten classes of 35.

Any discussion of efficiency in education spending needs to occur AFTER a discussion of adequacy and minimums. I believe in many schools, in many districts, we have never provided adequacy, and any talk of being more efficient is premature.

Let’s talk about efficiency. Let’s end waste. Let’s stop wasting the potential in youth that could be achieved with proper investment, and proper attention. The limited resources allocated to some students in this nation, especially the poor, is wasteful and irresponsible.