School's Out for Laid-Off L.A. Teacher

On a day most California educators spent organizing supplies and going over lesson plans in preparation for the first day of school, Jean and Michael Cantius* waded through paperwork to apply for a loan modification. The Cantius household is struggling under a double-punch of the California budget crunch: Jean is one of 2,000-plus teachers the Los Angeles Unified School District could not afford to bring back for full-time positions this fall, and Michael had to accept a severe pay cut in order to keep his administration job. If their application for loan modification under Obama's mortgage relief program is rejected, Jean, Michael and their two children will lose their home.

As government revenue from property, income, business, and sales taxes have plummeted nationwide over the past year, states have struggled to slash budgets and slow mounting deficits. Analysis released this week by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that 25 states have reduced funding for K-12 education, citing South Carolina, Florida, and California as those enacting the deepest cuts.

According to the California Teachers Association, districts across the state have laid off more than 20,000 educators. Los Angeles Unified--the second largest school district in the country--had to cut almost a billion dollars from its budget this year. Nearly 9,000 teachers, counselors, and administrators received layoff notices in the Spring, though an infusion of federal stimulus funds eased budget constraints enough to finance re-hiring around 6,700 of them.

Jean is one of the more than 2,000 teachers who weren't so lucky. The middle-school English teacher could have chosen the erratic status of a substitute in lieu of total unemployment, but decided against it. Substitute teachers are those who can answer an early-morning call for work without worrying about last-minute childcare. Also, sporadic assignments could make Jean ineligible for unemployment, while bringing in less income than the paltry government check she can at least expect to arrive with regularity.

Between ongoing educational budget discussions in Sacramento and filed forms awaiting assessment for mortgage modification, it seems like the entirety of Jean's life churns through a muddled flux whose outcome wholly depends on the decision-making of others. In the overwhelmed hands of one anonymous bureaucrat or another lies the power to directly impact her livelihood, her family's future and prosperity, the fate of their home. "The lesson for me is to be patient," Jean explains. 

Rather than obsessing over her unemployment and the possibility of foreclosure, Jean focuses on the positive consequence of getting laid off: "I know how sweet it is to have more time with my kids. It's almost a blessing."  On Tuesday, when LAUSD teachers had their first in-service day of the year, "We were at the beach, so I didn't feel too bad." She took pleasure in texting her former colleagues photos of her day at the ocean, receiving good-natured grumbles of jealousy in response.

She can chuckle over the situation, though she would rather be inside at a staff meeting and preparing for a new crop of students--not only for the gainful employment, but also so she can do her part helping to stimulate and inform the next generation. Education seems almost like a religious calling for Jean, "I love teaching. It's my passion. It's not just what I do, it's who I am." Because she takes the purpose of her profession so seriously, Jean feels troubled by the unrecognized future costs that short-changing education today will create. 

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Christina Davidson is a writer, photographer, and book editor who specializes in national security, terrorism, and war. She also writes for the food blog Feed The Masses.

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