Budget Woes Hit Nation’s Schools Hard and Harder

The New Jersey taxpayer revolt that led to the defeat of almost 59 percent of the school district budgets before voters attracted nationwide attention last week.

In most states, including Pennsylvania, school budgets are not put to a popular vote. But the fiscal tsunami that has swamped New Jersey – state-aid cuts, a bad economy, the end of federal stimulus aid – has rocked districts, threatening greater education cutbacks and job losses than most have ever seen.

Less than a week before residents here went to the polls, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan warned Congress of a “catastrophe unfolding across this country” in the form of stripped-down state budgets that imperil 100,000 to 300,000 education jobs.

Locally, as municipal boards take up the task of reopening district spending plans in search of more possible cuts, school officials have expressed fear of program eliminations, growing class sizes, and further teacher layoffs.

Nationally, “literally tens of millions of students will experience these budget cuts in one way or another,” Duncan testified. “Schools, districts, and states that are working so hard to improve will see their reforms undermined by these budget problems.”

Even in districts where state funding has not been cut, the effects of local economic ills and the end of jobs-sparing stimulus money are being felt.

Duncan urged Congress to consider another round of funding as “emergency support for America’s schools.”

Sen. Tom Harkin (D., Iowa) – and 20 cosponsors, including New Jersey Democratic Sens. Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg and Sen. Arlen Specter (D., Pa.) – recently introduced the Keep Our Educators Working Act. It calls for creating a $23 billion Education Jobs Fund that could bring about $600 million to New Jersey and $900 million to Pennsylvania, according to a National Education Association analysis.

The money would spare or create more than 256,000 teaching positions in kindergarten through Grade 12 and nearly 51,000 higher-education jobs, according to estimates by the Education Commission of the States, a nonpartisan education policy research group.

If the legislation passes, states will have to wait 180 days – into the next school year – before money is available.

Despite last year’s education stimulus boost, the recession has taken a heavy toll on public education, according to a study released last week by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Since the start of the economic decline, 29 states and Washington, D.C., have enacted cuts to childhood education. More are expected to do so.

“It will be likely that every state that did will again, and other states that haven’t will begin to,” said Jon Shure, deputy director of the Fiscal Project at the nonpartisan Washington institute.

According to the center, states’ budget gaps will reach a combined $180 billion in the coming fiscal year. The governors of many states – including New York, California, Illinois, Mississippi, and Oklahoma – have joined New Jersey’s Gov. Christie in proposing significant cuts to public education, among other services.

Pennsylvania is bucking the trend. Gov. Rendell has called for a $355 million increase in the state’s primary public education subsidy in the coming fiscal year. Last week, the School District of Philadelphia unveiled a $3.2 billion proposed budget with money for new programs.

That is possible, said Michael Masch, chief business officer of the Philadelphia schools, because the Pennsylvania legislature last year supplemented its state education aid with federal stimulus money. Other states used stimulus money in place of state funds.

Also, unlike New Jersey, which used almost all its education stimulus in one budget year, Pennsylvania split its between the two years.

In Pennsylvania, districts cannot lay off teachers for economic reasons alone, said David Davare, director of research services for the state’s School Boards Association. There must be sustained enrollment decline or an alteration of programs, he said, adding that there had been staff reductions through attrition.

But with growing labor costs, economic difficulties are likely to arise after the next school year, he said. By then, the stimulus money all will be spent, unless Congress approves more.

The financial crunch “is still coming,” Davare said. “It is farther down the road than New Jersey, but it’s going to be ugly.”

For many states, ugly is already here. A National Education Association/American Federation of Teachers analysis estimated that nearly 152,000 education jobs – including 6,500 teachers and more than 3,400 school staff in New Jersey – could be lost this spring.

“If we lay off even close to this number, we are saying to students and people in general that we’re not sure we can afford to provide students with the education they deserve,” said Bill Raabe, the National Education Association’s director of collective bargaining and member advocacy.

Raabe said that the Harkin bill should be passed to get through the immediate crises and that there must be a review of funding mechanisms such as taxes for the longer haul.

“We can’t afford for children to come through schools and not get the education they need,” Raabe said.

In New York, a state education cut of $1.1 billion is expected to have far-reaching effects, including the loss of about 14,000 teaching jobs.

“I haven’t seen this before,” said spokeswoman Jane Briggs, a 10-year veteran of the state Education Department.

More than half the job cuts are expected in New York City.

“Losing 8,500 teachers would have a major impact on our schools,” including increasing class size, said city education spokeswoman Ann Forte.

Education staff reductions are projected for schools from DeSoto County, Miss., to Los Angeles, where a second round of cuts is expected in the coming year.

School District U-46, one of Illinois’ largest, is projected to have its state per-pupil aid halved. It could lose a further $8 million for programs such as early-childhood, special, and bilingual education and reading improvement.

To cope, it plans to shut one of its early-childhood centers, close pools, eliminate middle school football, and increase high school classes to 30 students, up from 24. A thousand employees, including 700 teachers, have received layoff notices.

“It will be devastating for the next year,” said district spokesman Tony Sanders. “It will be devastating for years to come, based on the cuts we’re looking at.”

The year after next is projected to be worse, he said, given falling property-tax revenue and increased costs.

Will the district eventually come back? “Absolutely,” Sanders said.

Will it be in time for the current generation of students? That, he said, is harder to know.

“A kid is only in third grade once,” he said.

Inquirer staff writer Dan Hardy contributed to this article.

© 2010 Philadelphia Inquirer
Categories: Journalism.

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