School Districts Across US Face Lean Times

AS a dropout counselor in the Los Angeles public schools, Martin Novell spends his days trying to keep students in class. Now he wishes someone could do the same for him. Mr. Novell is among 1,000 teachers and other workers in the nation's second-largest school district who have been notified they will be laid off because of a budget crunch. They are not alone.

From Connecticut to California, many of the nation's public schools face their leanest times in a decade.

There is talk once again of cutting sports programs, closing libraries, and canceling field trips. More students are being asked to sit in fewer classrooms. Pink slips are being handed out like shepherd's pie.

"We have a country whose priority is developing smart bombs and stupid people," says Mr. Novell, an eight-year veteran of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Educators warn that unless adequate funding is forthcoming reforms set in motion in the 1980s will be set back, a new generation of teachers will become disgruntled with the profession, and the nation's efforts at improving a lagging public school system will be undermined.

Others, however, point out that more money isn't the answer to better education and that the new austerity may sharpen the debate over what America's schools should be doing.

(Texas moves on court-ordered school-funding reforms, Page 7.)

"What we need to do is look at where the money is going," says Jeanne Allen, an education analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Every spring, when local school districts are doing their fiscal planning for next fall's term, cries of woe can be heard across the land. But as often as not in recent years, many local school districts ended up with real increases in education funding.

That likely won't happen this year.

Recession and red ink at all levels of government are forcing lawmakers to make painful decisions about which programs to cut.

Day care and welfare are competing with marching bands and science texts. Will it be a new athletic field or a new prison? Because education is one of the biggest outlays at the state and local level, it is not escaping the shears.

"The threats are bigger than normal this year," says John Augenblick, an education consultant in Denver, Colo. "Whether they will pan out we don't know yet. Education tends to be protected better than many other programs."

Hardest hit are schools in cities and states where the odor of recession has been the most pungent - New England, New York City, California, and many points in between: Maryland, Michigan, Indiana, Virginia.

The National Education Association, the big teachers' union, estimates as many as 45,000 teachers may be laid off by September.

California is staring at a projected deficit of $12.6 billion, a record, over the next 15 months. To be able to make "equitable" cuts and cope with the shortfall, Gov. Pete Wilson (R) and others have been pushing for a suspension of a voter-approved initiative that guarantees education 40 percent of the state's outlays.

But even if they aren't successful - the move is opposed by teachers' groups and some Democrats - the downturn in the economy will still cost local districts as much as $1 billion in state aid next year.

"It is mind-boggling what we are going to be going through," says Ed Foglia, president of the California Teachers Association.

School boards here and across the country are already focusing on where the trims would come:

San Francisco is looking at closing two schools to help pare $25 million from its budget.

Pulaski County, Arkansas, has been studying a four-day school week to trim transportation and utility costs.

Howard County, Maryland, may have to let 100 teachers and administrators go.

Officials in Toledo, Ohio, are considering eliminating sports and other after-school activities.

Educators fret that some of the first programs to go will be those spawned in the reform movement of the 1980s and some of the first teachers to go will be the young and most energetic.

Kendra Hall isn't so much concerned about herself as she is about students. A music teacher for five years at Nobel Junior High School here, Ms. Hall was notified last month that she would be laid off at the end of the school year.

Her classes will be taught by an elementary school music teacher, who will move up. Most elementary music programs will be eliminated.

"Without music you are going to have higher dropout rates," she says. "It gives students a sense of belonging."

As states cut back, there is concern that the gap between rich and poor districts will widen because the better-off ones will be able to use local funds to make up for losses.

"The school districts that don't have the tax base, where children truly need a quality education the most, are the ones that have this placed on their backs," says Samuel Sava, head of the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

Still, others believe that the new austerity may spur more creative management of schools and innovative ideas in the classroom. They contend that nearly a decade of increased education funding has not been enough to turn around the nation's schools.

The Heritage Foundation's Allen argues the money has "fattened" bureaucracies, but hasn't made it to the classroom.

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