Sydney Walker is scared. She is worried her children, who attend San Juan Unified schools, won't be prepared for college or classes next year if state lawmakers allow school districts to cut the school year by as many as 15 days.
That could shorten the school year to 160 days tying California with Colorado for the shortest school year, and well below the national norm of 180 days.
Walker says she knows families who would have trouble finding child care if districts cut school days.
That's what lawmakers are counting on, according to many education experts.
They say Gov. Jerry Brown, who proposed the shortened school year, and Democratic legislators are using the issue to get California residents to vote for a tax initiative in November.
His initiative would raise income taxes on people making more than $250,000 a year and increase sales taxes by a a quarter cent on the dollar.
The school year reduction part of an education trailer bill being considered by legislators is a trigger cut that would be activated only if the initiative doesn't pass.
Lawmakers are "leveraging education and children to get people to vote for a tax increase," said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. "Voters have rejected this before because they are tired of children being used as human shields by the political left."
Education experts don't dispute that the prospect of a dramatically shortened school year could help them fight for funds. They say more money is needed for the state and its public schools.
"It is leverage, but it is also reality," said David Plank, executive director of Policy Analysis for California Education. "If we don't pass the tax initiative, the California budget situation is going to be even more dire than what we have seen in the last five years."
Political analyst Barbara O'Connor called it the best of a bad deal. "We are way behind the rest of the world in the number of school days, and California is nearly dead last," she said. "To further that would be horrible. But to lay off people, have larger class sizes are not a good choice either. If the (tax initiative) doesn't pass, it is Armageddon."
K-14 education could take a $5.5 billion hit if the initiative doesn't pass, according to the Association of California School Administrators. School districts should expect cuts of about $441 per student in that case, according to officials from School Services of California Inc.
The Legislative Analyst's Office has estimated that eliminating a school week statewide would save $1 billion.
The districts would have to reach agreements with their teacher unions on changes to the school year. The proposed change would allow districts to choose to shorten the school year by up to 15 days over two years, if at all.
In the past two years, most California school districts have reduced their school years. At 175 mandatory days of school, California is already among the states requiring the least number of school days, according to the Education Commission of the States.
The likelihood of a shortened school year locally is very real as both San Juan Unified and Sacramento City Unified teachers unions have already signed on, voting to tentatively approve furlough days if the tax initiative doesn't pass.
The Sacramento City Unified Teachers Association agreed to 10 additional days of furloughs if the tax initiative doesn't pass, while San Juan Unified teachers said they would take 11 if need be. The San Juan Unified school board will vote on the proposal next Tuesday.
"Nothing is automatic," said Tom Alves, executive director of the San Juan Teachers Association. "If the initiative passes, there will be no changes. If the initiative fails, who knows what the governor will do. If the worse-case scenario occurs, we will still be able to stay solvent."
Folsom-Cordova Unified officials don't have agreements with its teachers unions about additional furlough days tied to the trigger cuts, but would like to, said Stephen Nichols, district spokesman. He said the district will try to get agreements but may have to lay off 50 employees this summer if that doesn't happen.
Every one seems to agree that fewer school days won't be good for kids.
The education consequences are likely to be very severe, especially for the kids who need school the most poor kids, English Language Learners or kids with special needs, Plank said.
He said that parents in wealthier districts aren't likely to allow their districts to cut school days, opting instead to prop the districts up financially. Families in poor neighborhood will not be able to do that.
Some districts may opt to end the school year early, lengthening summer vacation. That could make things even worse for poor kids without summer learning options that are available to more affluent students.
"In summer better-off kids keep learning, their parents take them to museums, libraries ... Poor kids fall away during the summer because they aren't getting that type of enrichment," Plank said. "If we are talking about extending the summer by 15 days we are increasing the losses that poor kids suffer while they are not in school."
The cuts would impact all kids, said educators.
"Every international benchmark shows that longer school years matter," Sacramento City Unified Superintendent Jonathan Raymond said.
School leaders say they are only considering the possibility of a shortened school year because they are out of options.
Raymond said Sacramento City Unified has already cut athletics, busing and counselors, among other things next school year. "What is there left? Nothing."
He and other educators contacted say the tax initiative is the only thing between schools and educational and financial ruin.
"It is lights out in California," if the tax initiatives don't pass, he said. "It's like public education goes over a cliff."