Educators across California are lashing out at an item in Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed 2012-2013 budget that would eliminate a second year of science as a minimum requirement to graduate from high school.
The item, which has caught some officials by surprise, is causing outrage among educators who say California's students should be getting more science, not less.
"To me, it's absolutely astounding that the state of California, our leadership, would actually believe it would be appropriate not to have more science and actually have less science," said longtime Santa Rosa School Board member Frank Pugh. "I hope the public really understands — they are dismantling, day-by-day, public education."
H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the state Department of Finance, said the item is part of a larger push by the Brown administration to lift state requirements and give local schools a greater say in how they spend money.
"There is no reduction or elimination of dollars in association with the elimination of that mandate," he said.
"This is being put forward as a part of a broader proposal to provide school districts with greater flexibility and greater local control," he said. It gives "greater empowerment to local school districts to make local decisions."
But school officials fear cash-strapped districts buffeted by deep budget cuts will choose to move funds away from no-longer-mandated courses to pay for those that are required by law.
Since fiscal 2007-2008, districts in California have seen their per-pupil funding cut and annual cost of living increases frozen, leaving districts with 80 percent of the funding they are entitled to by the state's minimum funding law, said Denise Calvert, deputy superintendent of the Sonoma County Office of Education.
Keller McDonald, superintendent of the West County School District, called it a "forced choice" between such things as bus service, which is up for elimination in Brown's proposed budget, and a science class that might no longer be required.
"I just can't imagine that districts would see this as a positive," he said, saying he expected El Molino and Analy High schools to continue to require the second science course for graduation.
"This is certainly counter to every initiative on how to better prepare students for college and the workforce," said Anastasia Zita, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction for Santa Rosa City Schools. "I realize that in these budget times there are many things being discussed, but from an education standpoint, I simply can't fathom having less than a two-year requirement."
Educators pointed to other programs that have been given funding flexibility in recent years — adult education, maintenance, art supplies, career technical and libraries — only to have them eliminated or severely cut as districts divert funding to required programs.
"To me, once you start not making it a mandate, people feel released from it," said Phil Lafontaine, director of professional development and curriculum support division at the state Department of Education.
"I imagine that districts that are really struggling financially will probably pocket the money to help their finances," Pugh said.
"They keep telling us that we have to meet world-class requirements in math and science. How do these recommendations co-exist with demands for highly successful schools? This is the mixed message that drives you nuts," he said.
The proposed change to science graduation requirements comes as President Barack Obama is urging colleges to graduate 10,000 more engineers a year and 100,000 new teachers who majored in the science, technology engineering and math fields.