Recession saps school budgets

Districts face choices between lockers and textbooks - plus the new costs of national testing.

American educators returning to their schools in 2002 are facing more than January slush and post-holiday blahs.

From Long Island to Los Angeles, teachers and administrators are strapped with the tightest budgets in 10 years, forcing tough choices between textbooks and lockers, school plays and hockey rinks, band uniforms and computer terminals.

Straitjacketed by a faltering US economy, they are also having to wave goodbye to a decade of budgetary good times that helped fuel a string of education reforms - from smaller class sizes to new teacher training programs.

"Educators in state after state after state are trying to figure out where they can make cuts and how it will impact their district for the future," says Bob Chase, president of the National Education Association.

Lean economic times have opened a $40 billion hole in the state general funds on which schools heavily rely.

Budgets for public schools alone - serving 48 million students - have been slashed by $11 billion in the current school year, according to a recent congressional report.

"The fact is, reforms require resources to get results, and many [districts] are in danger of derailing what they've already accomplished," Mr. Chase says.

The $26.5 billion education reform law signed by President Bush Tuesday will provide a measure of relief to some districts.

But the money is largely earmarked for academic testing, literacy programs, and transfers for those in the worst public schools. Moreover, implementing the new testing regime, analysts say, could cost many times the amount Washington provided.

The law comes amid complaints that the 20 percent increase from current spending (from $18.5 billion to $26.5 billion a year) is far less than originally sought. And since states remain responsible for the bulk of K-12 funding - about $146 billion annually - the overall money squeeze remains.

Hardest-hit states

Following California, where Gov. Gray Davis announced a $850 million cut to public education Tuesday, the hardest-hit states include New York, Florida, Illinois, Minnesota, and Oregon.

School districts in those states are leading a parade of others to lay off teachers, curtail textbook and other purchases, put more children into fewer classrooms and schools, postpone repairs, and scale back teacher training.

Recent actions include:

• The New York City Board of Education faces a $400 million gap and is targeting after-school reading programs and middle-school sports.

• Central Florida school districts have already decided to scale back summer school and dip into emergency funds.

• In the Twin Cities, a Jan. 8 survey of 27 districts found $100 million in red ink, forcing plans to close schools, delay openings, shorten school weeks and alter district calendars.

• Oregon may boost class sizes, cut language and arts education, or shorten the school year.

Across the nation, belt-tightening moves often start with temporary measures, in an effort to avoid gouging programs that have taken years to create.

Some states and cities, for example, are imposing hiring freezes, travel restrictions, and even dipping into tobacco-settlement funds. With hopes that the current economic downturn could ease by spring, many are dipping into emergency reserves, rainy-day funds, or delaying payment of bills.

"We are cutting overhead and temp staff, so that if there is a quick [economic] recovery we will not have torn apart some of the basic structures of our working programs," says Ruth McKenna, administrator for a school district in San Francisco.

Likewise in Missouri, where legislators are facing their first cutbacks in aid to public schools since 1992, Gov. Bob Holden is still trying to preserve $220 million in his strapped budget to continue planned increases in for reading and math programs.

And in Lancaster, Penn., school district Superintendent Vicki Phillips says she is looking for any way to avoid reversing three years in gains for underprivileged youths in grades K-3.

When Ms. Phillips took over in 1997, 70 percent of those youths were in the state's lowest quartile on key state exams. Now, through an emphasis on early-childhood development and teacher training, the number is 20 percent.

"I'm being asked to cut $1.5 million, but I won't do it because to do so would devastate those kids and teachers," says Phillips. "We are working with legislators, chamber of commerce, and neighborhoods to come with out-of-the box solutions."

Golden State's efforts

In many states, such as California, public schools account for 40 percent or more of state budgets.

"We've got to hand it to Governor Davis. He is trying to stay as far away from the classroom with his cuts as possible," says Wayne Johnson, President of the California Teachers Association. He lauds Davis for rolling forward a $250 million bill for energy costs to next year to help pay for education programs.

Juggling books

But even as legislators and administrators at the district and state levels juggle accounts, those school principals are still getting stuck with hard decisions.

"It's a downward spiral," says Cynthia Augustine, principal of Columbus Middle School in Canoga Park here.

Her biggest problem: outdoor lockers that are in such disrepair that kids can't properly house the expensive, new textbooks they have - meaning books will need to be replaced sooner than they usually would.

"Everything I do is like trying to rob Peter to pay Paul," says Augustine. "If I take from one fund to pay for another .... somebody suffers and it sets off a domino that continues in many directions.... In the end, the resources simply aren't there."

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