The economy may be on the mend, but signs of decline still dominate in America's public schools as they plan their budgets for next year: Thousands of teachers once again brace for pink-slip season; more students will sit elbow-to-elbow in crowded rooms; computers that break down will sit unused; and kids will bring home longer lists of supplies – from crayons to sanitary wipes – that parents are supposed to buy for their classrooms.
"It's going to be the most difficult year we've had in probably 30 years," says Michael Griffith, a senior policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States in Denver. Even wealthier districts that have so far been insulated are starting to feel the pinch, he says.
While some of the roughly $100 billion in federal stimulus dollars for education will still flow during the next school year, continued state and local funding cuts are eating into their impact. To stave off an estimated loss of 100,000 or more education jobs, Sen. Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa proposed a $23 billion school bailout April 14, but it's not clear how quickly the proposal could move forward if it gains traction.
Many districts have already made cuts to transportation, textbook and technology spending, and extracurricular activities. In a recent survey of school districts, 43 percent of respondents reported budget cuts of 10 percent or less for this academic year, and 21 percent reported cuts of 11 to 25 percent, according to the American Association of School Administrators (AASA).
Looking ahead to the 2010-11 school year, districts reporting cuts of 10 percent or less from this year's level rose to 48 percent. Those foreseeing cuts of 11 to 25 percent jumped to 30 percent, the survey found. This next round of cuts, Mr. Griffith says, "is affecting classroom teachers one way or another, either with the class size rising, or cutting the school week ... or cutting the school year."
Los Angeles schools avoided laying off more than 2,000 teachers through a union-district agreement to cut five days off this school year and two more days off next year. (At time of writing the agreement was awaiting school board approval.)
In Chicago, district leaders warned this winter that the impending $1 billion budget deficit could lead to class sizes of 37 and drastic cuts to early-childhood education. Officials are waiting to hear whether the governor will sign a pension-reform bill that would save the district $400,000 before providing a detailed budget – though they will still need to make severe cuts.
In Georgia's DeKalb County School District, plans to close a budget gap of more than $100 million include shutting down four schools, enlarging classes, forcing seven furlough days, and cutting more than 400 jobs. Neighboring Fulton County will do away with some 1,000 jobs, including nearly 500 teaching positions, and eliminate elementary school bands and orchestras.
New Jersey superintendents learned last month that Gov. Chris Christie (R) was going to cut $820 million in state education aid. Nearly 93 percent of school districts in the state plan to lay off staff – including teachers, in most cases – according to a survey by the New Jersey School Boards Association. Sixty percent said programs such as art, music, and foreign languages would also see cuts.
The Piscataway, N.J., schools, which serve a diverse population of 7,000 students, lost $5 million in state aid from a $105 million budget. The result: 59 teachers and staff laid off, no more middle school athletics or freshman teams, and no more foreign languages in elementary school. It also cut its successful Summer Academy and Saturday Academy, both of which aimed to close achievement gaps.
"I'm not going to say losing these programs is going to stop us doing what we need to do, but it's made it a heck of a lot harder," says Piscataway superintendent Robert Copeland. The district had already eliminated inefficiencies to deal with previous cuts. "Now we're stuck with hanging onto what we've got in an atmosphere of wanton savaging of local school districts," he says. "We are running out of rabbits to pull out of the hat."
Nationally, 79 percent of district leaders express concern that the economic downturn impaired their ability to improve student achievement, according to the AASA survey.
The number of districts in the survey that are seriously considering reducing the school week to four days (13 percent) or ending summer school (34 percent) – often solutions of last resort – shows how bad the fiscal crisis is in many places, says Noelle Ellerson, an AASA policy analyst.
Illinois lawmakers are considering allowing districts to move to a four-day week. Jamaica School District superintendent Mark Janesky isn't planning such a shift right away, but he supports the idea, given the costs of transportation in rural areas like his. "We could save around $100,000, which is a lot for us," he says.
School administrators warn that the situation will only worsen as federal stimulus dollars run out next year.
"The [funds] were well needed, well appreciated, and put to good use in our districts ... but they're dollars with an expiration date approaching.... School districts are facing a steep cliff," Ms. Ellerson says.
Some education policy experts say more districts could be using the economic downturn as an opportunity to gain efficiencies – by changing teacher pay systems, for instance, or better tapping technology to deliver instruction.
"What we've not seen is much effort to get smart or creative or aggressive about rethinking the cost structure of public schooling," says Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
For a new coalition of youth and parent activists, though, Tax Day on April 15 was the perfect opportunity to kick off a national "SOS: Save Our Schools" campaign to increase education funding.
"Our message is: Bail out schools, not the banks. Schools are what we need to invest in for our future," says Kimi Lee, coordinator of the Alliance for Educational Justice, a network based in Oakland, Calif., that organized the campaign.
Rallying at post offices in cities ranging from Boston to Wichita, Kan., students used props to symbolize education as a sinking ship. They passed out stickers depicting life preservers that read, "Invest my taxes in public education," so that supporters could send the message on their tax-return envelopes.