For schools from North Carolina to the Coast Ranges of California, the bad old budget days have returned.
In scenarios unseen in a decade, districts across America are once again being forced to choose between freshman football and middle-school music, art workshops and new sprinkler systems in order to balance books. For example:
Public schools in Tulsa, Okla., have eliminated 600 of 900 bus stops.
Middle schoolers in Lacey, Wash., will have to pay $65 to play sports nearly double last year's cost while those in Las Vegas saw basketball and cheerleading cut entirely.
In North Carolina's Guilford County, there will be 16 fewer assistant principals and no cafeteria monitors.
So far, many districts have avoided deeper cuts into curriculum. Some, especially in the South and Great Plains, have not. Yet in each case, the downturn is proving the first financial test of America's great education reforms.
Fashioned during the flush budgets of the 1990s, the push for increased accountability for schools including the tests and mandates that go along with it now must deal with dearth, as districts are pressed to maintain state and federal standards even as they slash budgets.
"Now states have so many more mandates of something you absolutely have to do," says Bruce Hunter of the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va. "Each mandate reduces your discretion."
Mandates, experts agree, have never been more prevalent. They can range from school lunches to building codes and indoor air quality, but perhaps the most conspicuous and contentious crunch has come over testing and class sizes. Indeed, the two have largely progressed together during the past decade, as reformers tout small classes as a crucial way to improve achievement and tests as the best way to gauge it.
"Schools are feeling pressure to get kids up to state levels [of academic achievement] because of testing," says Michael Griffith of the Education Commission of the States in Denver. "In the past, they might not have put such pressure on themselves to keep small class sizes."
Most districts have been able to skirt cuts that would send class sizes back up again. But it hasn't been easy. "To keep that going, they've having to cut everything around it," says Mr. Griffith.
West Contra Costa County, here in the Bay Area, has eliminated the clerks who oversee middle-school textbooks, throwing the distribution of tens of thousands of texts this autumn into disarray, some say. Public schools in Kansas City, Kan., laid off 35 custodians, and parents at two elementary schools in nearby Shawnee Mission raised more than $100,000 to keep two teachers, two nurses, and a counselor.
Yet the troubles for some districts run deeper, slicing into class sizes and testing. Caught in the vise of a growing student population and a shrinking budget, Clark County schools, which include Las Vegas, have had to let third grade class sizes grow from 19 to 22. For a district on pace to build a school a month just to keep up with growth, it was an unavoidable step back.
"We already spend $1,000 less per pupil than the national average," says district spokesman Pat Nelson. "If we continue to have to cut, then we can't catch up."
According to a survey by the American Association of School Administrators, it's a common conundrum. Forty-four states have seen their money cut or held steady, which essentially amounts to a cut when teacher raises are factored in. In a dramatic example, the Oregon Board of Education had to cut state student tests for writing, math, and science in middle schools this year.
Nationwide, most experts say, the current cuts are not as bad as they were a decade ago. Yet to some administrators they seem every bit as devastating.
Lew Finch has been a superintendent for 33 years, and he can't remember it ever being this bad. His district in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, has trimmed its central office staff by one-quarter, to 12. All out-of-state trips are banned. And 50 full-time teachers were let go, which will add one to two students to each class "and we already had parents complaining about classes of 30."
While officials in other districts across the country insist that the cuts won't affect academics, Mr. Finch makes no such promises. He had to use all his reserves just to get through last year. This year, he says, "we made our best effort to make cuts without affecting student achievement, but we couldn't do it."
In the Great Plains and the South, where per-student spending is usually lower, his tale is familiar. Farm states like Iowa, particularly, "don't have two nickels to rub together," says Mr. Hunter.
Tax cuts during the '90s have left schools with less money as the economy cooled, and state and federal mandates have given them less room to maneuver. "It's worse than ever," says Finch.