As Gov.-elect Jerry Brown prepares to take office, major headwinds are buffeting the biggest component of his upcoming budget: California’s schools, reports the Los Angeles Times. They are being confronted by a lack of funding that threatens to further harm pupils and a controversial reform movement that could dramatically reshape how classrooms are run. Most immediate and pressing is the state’s fiscal crisis–a $28-billion gap is forecast for the next 18 months. How that will affect school districts already reeling from years of multibillion-dollar cuts will be the subject of Brown’s second budget forum, which is scheduled for Tuesday in Los Angeles.

“Jerry Brown is entering office at a moment when the capacity of the system is weaker than any time in recent memory,” said John Rogers, director of the Institute for Democracy, Education and Access at UCLA. “I worry we may be reaching a breaking point.”

Schools’ financial health is intricately tied to the state budget because roughly 40% of it is earmarked for K-12 education. In recent years, as legislators struggled to close large deficits, schools have seen round after round of funding cuts–$21 billion in the last two years alone. California’s per-pupil spending is now lower than that in nearly every other state, resulting in widespread teacher layoffs, the cancellation of summer school, the shortening of the school year and the overcrowding of classrooms. Educators say the state is seeing the result of these actions–the dropout rate rose three points, to 22%, in the 2008-09 school year–and fear that more cuts could push some districts into insolvency.

“I attribute the increase in the dropout rate to some extent on the budget cuts–fewer counselors, fewer classes in music and the arts, less career-technical education,” said Jack O’Connell, the outgoing state superintendent of public instruction.

Brown, who has called finding more funding for schools a “very top priority,” acknowledges the difficulty of doing so in tough economic times…

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staff and wire services reports