In his annual State of Education address, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell on Tuesday said California's schools are in a precarious position due to the economic downturn and ongoing budget crisis.
"We face truly a defining moment for public education," O'Connell said in delivering his sixth annual address in Sacramento. "We gather at a moment of great uncertainty."
Beyond the immediate crisis, he expressed worry about the future and whether public schools would suffer long-term damage.
With more than half the school year completed, he said, school districts face staggering budget cuts. Districts are reacting in various ways.
The Hayward Unified School District may lay off 170 teachers and increase class sizes from one teacher per 20 students to one teacher per 32 students in primary grades.
In some districts, school bus transportation may end.
In Lake Elsinore, he said, schools are duct-taping light switches in the off position to save on electricity.
"I hear these kind of stories all over the state," he said. "As painful as these midyear cuts are, we can expect worse over the next two years."
California spends about $48 billion a year on K-12 education, almost half its general fund, but its students fare poorly on standardized tests when compared with their peers in other states.
The state's schools also show a persistent gap in achievement rates: White, Asian and wealthier students far outperform students who are black, Latinos and poor.
Without more money, California will ensure a two-tiered education system for its students, O'Connell said.
"Families who struggle financially will be left with a substandard system, one that cannot possibly prepare their children to be able to compete in a changing global economy," he said.
His comments came as the state is struggling with a budget deficit estimated at $42 billion through June 2010.
Whatever compromise they reach is sure to include billions of dollars in cuts to public schools.
Education interest groups are at odds over what programs should be given a lower priority.
Schwarzenegger, a Republican, has proposed giving school districts more spending flexibility that would allow them to spend the money where local officials decide it is most needed.
The state's largest teachers union, the California Teachers Association, is mobilizing against any plan that would allow local school administrators to divert money from a program that keeps class sizes smaller — and more teachers employed — in kindergarten through third grade.
Democrats have proposed suspending laws that require schools to buy updated textbooks and make repairs in some of the poorest school districts.
O'Connell, a Democrat, stopped short of choosing sides in his speech but said major revisions to the funding structure and priorities are needed.
"Most tragically, these cuts come at the very same time that the need for better schools and more support services continues to grow," O'Connell said.
The cuts being discussed would likely push California to 50th in the nation in terms of per-student spending, he said.
But O'Connell said he was optimistic even during difficult times for public schools. California schools are making progress in improving student achievement, he said.
Fifty-four percent of schools in California made their Academic Progress Index growth targets this past year, an increase of nearly 18 percent from 2007. From 2002 to 2008, the number of students who were far-below or below basic in English language arts dropped by almost 30 percent, from 35 percent to 25 percent of California students, he said.
Also in 2008, the state saw an increase in high school seniors taking college entrance exams.
Associated Press contributed to this story.