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Schools feel pinch from economic woes

Officials look for the least painful trims, but many worry about their ability to close achievement gaps.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 24, 2008

School districts across the United States are tightening their belts in anticipation of a meager fiscal diet that could carry into 2011.

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As state and local revenue declines, officials are looking for the trims least likely to harm the quality of education. Although some districts have rainy-day funds to tap, concern is growing that students, particularly those who are struggling to learn or who are homeless, are going to feel the pinch.

Just over a third of superintendents in a recent national survey said they've already increased the size of classes because of the downturn, according to the American Association of School Administrators, an organization in Arlington, Va., that supports high standards for public education. Thirty percent of superintendents are considering layoffs. Of the two-thirds who said their districts are inadequately funded, 83 percent think it's detrimental to their ability to close achievement gaps for minority groups.

If the dry spell lasts through multiple school years, "that's when real noticeable things start to happen," says Michael Griffith, an analyst at the Education Commission of the States, a policy group in Denver. Delaying purchases leads to book shortages, while school technology and infrastructure fray. The ax often comes down on after-school and summer-school programs for struggling students. "The people who are hurt the most are those who need the most assistance," Mr. Griffith says.

With 41 states confronting revenue shortfalls this year or next, a number are likely to include education in their cuts, he says. In California and New York, which had deficit woes even before this fall's financial crisis, proposals to cut education funds midway through the school year are meeting resistance. New York Gov. David Paterson (D) called for pulling back $840 million of this year's school budget – up to 10 percent for some districts – but the proposal has been shelved until January. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) wants about $2.5 billion in cuts to schools and community colleges.

Once schools have signed contracts, if the state withholds promised aid, it would be like "dropping a bomb in the middle of the school year," says Timothy Kremer, executive director of the New York State School Boards Association. "It only happened once before [in New York], in the early '90s," he says. "Many districts had to ... really dig into the bone of their programs, and many of them have told me they never fully recovered."