Education Feels States Financial Squeeze
By Pamela M. Prah, Staff Writer; Jason White, Assistant Staff Writer
Education consistently ranks as a top priority for American voters, but that hasn't spared it from the chopping block as state lawmakers struggle to balance their budgets. At least 20 states have targeted this crown jewel of public services, a sure sign of just how bad the states' fiscal crunch has become.
These are among cost-cutting scenarios playing out across the country:
Teachers in Claremore, Okla., are doubling as janitors because of custodial cuts while principals in Putnam City and Enid, Okla., are filling in for missing teachers because districts are not hiring substitutes.
- Teachers in Portland, Ore., have agreed to work 10 days without pay to prevent the city from dropping 24 days from its school calendar.
- Springfield, Mass. did not fill 100 teaching and 80 paraprofessional slots this year, laid off 12 nurses, eliminated its hot breakfast program and closed all the school pools.
- Idaho's Twin Falls School District was able to keep its hearing specialist on staff only after teachers gave up a day's pay to help cover the audiologist's salary.
- In Utah, the Weber School District increased class size by one student and put 10th grade competency testing and some written tests on hold.
The budget crunch comes at a time when states are scrambling to meet new federal education requirements.
Critics complain that the Bush administration's "No Child Left Behind's" testing and reporting requirements will cost up to $35 billion more than the $29 billion Congress recently authorized.
On top of this, a slew of states, including Ohio, New Hampshire and Wyoming, are under court order to assure adequate funding of schools.
"Many places have cut as much as they can," said Michael Griffith, a school finance policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based group made up of state education officials and experts. "Will courts let states slide" on meeting court-ordered mandates because of the budget crunches? "No one knows."
At least 20 states have cut K-12 funding in fiscal 2003, which ends June 30 for most of them, and some states are making rare mid-year cuts that are forcing many schools to restrict travel, lay off staff and even downsize the school year. Other common casualties: school repair projects, art and music programs, after-school tutorials, programs for gifted students, help for bilingual students and computer upgrades.
Cuts to higher education are creating equally dramatic consequences on state college campuses. Massachusetts led the way in raising tuition with a 24 percent increase last year. It was followed by Missouri, Iowa and Texas, at 20 percent, according to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, a nonprofit that researches higher education public policies that is funded, in part, by The Pew Charitable Trusts, the same organization that funds Stateline.org.
On top of tuition hikes, some students are getting socked with higher fees. Those at the University of Maryland, for example, found out in late January that their bills would be 5 percent higher for the spring semester. Chancellor William E. Kirwan called the increase "unavoidable" because of the fiscal problems plaguing the state.
But it's not just sticker shock that has students reeling. Some are finding courses they planned to take a lot more crowded or not offered at all. That means it could take students longer than four years to graduate since they have to wait longer for classes they need.
"We estimate that one-quarter of our students will run into problems," Bill Walker, a spokesman for Virginia's College of William and Mary, said. Over the last 18 months, William and Mary cut 58 classes and course sections, ranging from economics to music to kinesiology.
University of Nebraska (Lincoln) students saw a Master's program in museum studies eliminated and subsidies for students studying veterinary medicine wiped out as a result of a $21 million cut in state funds.
The cuts come as the 'baby boom echo' generation graduates from high school, raising the number of students trying to get into college. Cheryl Fields, a spokeswoman for the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges, which represents 215 public universities says all these factors taken together "produce a gloomy picture for many students and for public universities in the months ahead."
Many inside and outside the education community worry that the cuts in education will shortchange today's youth and threaten the country's future prosperity.
"Education drives the quality of your work force and drives whether you are going to be competitive in a knowledge-based economy," Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D) said in an interview with Stateline.org.
Warner exempted K-12 spending from a recent round of budget cuts that trimmed many Virginia programs by as much as 20 percent.
Students, teachers, parents and activists have demonstrated in California, Maryland, Kentucky, New Jersey, New York and other states to protest proposed cuts. But state lawmakers trying to close large budget gaps can't afford to exempt an endeavor that accounts for half of all state spending.
Missouri Gov. Bob Holden (D) noted in his State of the State speech that some 100 school districts in the United States had shut down schools one day a week to save money, a course Holden said he did not want to take. That's not a large number, since there are 15,000 school districts nationwide just 0.6 percent.
Schools in Arkansas, Colorado, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oregon, South Dakota and Wyoming are affected , according to the National Association of State Budget Officers.
Oregon's school funding problems wound up in the national spotlight thanks to a recent series of "Doonesbury" cartoon strips that lampooned Portland's bid to drop 24 days from the school calendar as a way to cut costs. "Oregon is the poster child of what is going on in the states because of declining revenues," said Jan Chambers, spokeswoman for the Oregon Education Association in Portland. "It's ghastly here," she said.
Portland teachers agreed to work 10 days without pay as long as the city finds the money to keep schools open the remaining 14 days. The tentative deal means new teachers who earn $28,000 a year will take a $1,500 pay cut, half the amount of lost salary had 24 days been dropped from the school calendars.
The irony of the education cuts is that they aren't all that helpful in easing the states' budget crunch, education experts said. A four-day school week helps rural schools cut transportation costs, they said, but it forces parents to scramble for new child-care arrangements.
Other analysts say cutting back on education funding at a time when the nation is spending billions in an effort to assure domestic security is shortsighted in the extreme. "Education is the food that nourishes the nation's soul. When public officials refuse to provide adequate school resources for the young, it's the same as parents refusing to feed their children. It's unconscionable. It's criminal," New York Times columnist Bob Herbert wrote.