Schools Struggle with Cuts as State Revenues Continue to Lag

In early July, one unusual item came up for bid on the online auction giant eBay. The listing read, “One Slightly Used But Extremely Successful Pennsylvania Public High School.”

The high school in question was The Learning Center, an alternative school in the Neshaminy School District. The district, faced with a $14 million deficit, considered closing the school, according to news reports. The eBay listing—which had bids starting at just under $600,000—offered one lucky buyer naming rights, a large pizza, a coffee mug and the chance to deliver the commencement address.

Although the listing was taken off eBay before the auction ended, it does highlight some of the extremes to which school districts are going to try to close massive budget gaps caused by state funding cuts and lagging local tax revenue. School districts across the country have let hundreds of thousands of teachers or staff members go, stopped buying computers and textbooks, limited or suspended busing for students, increased class sizes, and cancelled all-day kindergarten and summer classes.

The National Perspective

“We know that states have made very deep cuts to education funding since the start of the recession,” said Phil Oliff, policy analyst with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan research and policy institute working on federal and state fiscal policies. “As of last year, over half of the states had education funding levels … below pre-recession levels.“

Oliff said some of the deepest cuts to K–12 education came last year after money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act ran out.

“The federal aid was enormously helpful in helping states avoid some of the potentially deepest cuts to education funding,” he said.

According to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, at least 19 states cut education funding by more than 5 percent between 2010–11 and 2011–12. Four states—Illinois, Kansas, Texas and Wisconsin—cut spending by 10 percent or more.

The American Association of School Administrators conducts a yearly survey to gauge how districts are coping with the economic downturn. In its 2012 report, more than 80 percent of administrators described their district as being inadequately funded. Nearly 70 percent of respondents said they eliminated positions in both the 2010–11 and 2011–12 school years. And while 4 percent of administrators said they reduced the school week to four days in 2010–11 and 2011–12, more than 10 percent of administrators anticipated making that reduction in the 2012–13 year.

“These are all really directly impacting student achievement,” said Noelle Ellerson, assistant director of policy analysis and advocacy for the American Association of School Administrators. “They don’t mention anymore about modifying thermostats, reducing field trips, eliminating staff travel, reducing consumable supplies or outsourcing janitorial services. (Eliminating) that sort of stuff are conversations school districts have already had.”

California May Cut Calendar

California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said education funding in his state has been cut by 25 percent over the past four budget cycles. Torlakson said California school districts have laid off 35,000 teachers and up to a couple of dozen districts may go into receivership next fiscal year if the funding situation does not improve.

Gov. Jerry Brown proposed an initiative that will be on the ballot in November that would increase for seven years the personal income tax on people earning more than $250,000 a year and increase the sales tax by one-quarter cent for four years. Of the $6.8 billion to $9 billion expected from the taxes in the 2012–13 fiscal year, 89 percent is earmarked for education.

If the initiative fails, an additional $6 billion would be cut from education. During the most recent session, legislators gave school districts the green light to cut an additional 30 days from the school calendar over the next two years if the initiative fails. That means the California school calendar could drop to 160 days a year, down from 180 days three years ago. Five days already had been cut from the calendar in 2009.

Such a short school year, Torlakson said, means teachers will not be able to cover everything in the state standards.

“It’s an extremely difficult set of choices left to school districts and their administrative staff,” he said. “Basically, you can’t cover it all. They (students) are still going to be tested on what they know across the curriculum and across the standards they’re supposed to learn, but we will have this gap. You just can’t cover all of the material in the depth for optimal student understanding and learning.”

While funding may improve in the future, Torlakson said the shortage will already have done its damage to this generation of students.

“It’s harmful,” he said. “It’s extremely frustrating because these students only have third grade one time, only have fourth grade one time. … They will be hurt by the loss of instruction and the loss of the quality learning environment we know we can create with the right funding. … We’ve had some small progress in test scores, but we know it could be so much more.”

Waivers Increased in Texas

When Texas legislators passed a biennial budget last year, total education funding had been cut by $5.4 billion to help offset an anticipated $15 billion to $27 billion shortfall. The Texas Education Agency estimated that 25,000 school positions were eliminated between the 2010–11 and 2011–12 school years, the first year the budget took effect.

Dominic Giarratani, assistant director of government relations for the Texas Association of School Boards, said the number of classrooms seeking a waiver to exceed the state mandated 22-to-1 student-teacher ratio in kindergarten through fourth grade more than tripled—from 2,200 in the 2010–11 school year to 8,500 in the 2011–12 year. But with more than 1,000 school districts, each of which has a large amount of local control, Giarratani said the effects of the budget cuts are quite wide between districts in Texas.

“You have some schools that, kind of like the proverb, they were the ones putting the acorns away,” he said. “Then you have other districts that have been systematically underfunded; they don’t know if they can last two years with the current funding structure. Depending upon where you landed, you might say nothing has changed or you might see a district on the verge of shutting its doors.”

Texas Sen. Florence Shapiro, chair of the education committee, said legislators talked with Texas Education Agency Commissioner Robert Scott to ask him what kind of cuts school districts could manage.

“He believed a $4 billion cut was something he thought he could sustain and school districts could sustain,” Shapiro said. “The House side cut $10 billion and we had to negotiate.”

In addition to the $4 billion in general education funding, all $1.4 billion in discretionary programs also was cut.

Shapiro said stimulus money helped school districts avoid making painful cuts earlier, but legislators warned that it was one-time funding.

“That actually came back to bite us,” she said. “Many school districts in Texas used it as ongoing revenue, then came to us and said, ‘But we had it before.’ … That was a real issue for us.”

“We didn’t have any other place to cut,” Shapiro said. “When you’ve got a general revenue budget … and 65 percent of it’s in education. You have to have everyone share in the pain, particularly in a down economy.”

Pennsylvania Schools in Distress

Education funding in Pennsylvania was cut by about $900 million in the 2011–12 budget. Although the 2012–13 budget keeps the basic education funding program level, an additional $150 million was cut from an accountability block grant.

“You find an increasing number of schools in financial distress,” said Rep. James Roebuck Jr., minority chair of the House education committee. “Even now, more affluent districts are beginning to see they are three or four years away from a major financial debacle. … They relied on reserves to get over initial cuts, but now schools have laid off teachers, they’ve laid off staff, they’ve reduced programs. Some schools have cut arts and music, they’ve cut libraries, they’ve cut sports.”

A recent survey by the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials and the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators shows many school districts are making significant cuts. For the 2012–13 school year, 61 percent of school districts will increase class size, 37 percent will reduce tutoring for struggling students and 11 percent will reduce full-day kindergarten.

“We have economic problems, but it’s a question of where we put our priorities,” Roebuck said.

Rep. Paul Clymer, chair of the House education committee, said the 2011–12 education funding cuts were due to the loss of federal stimulus money. He said he was pleased the state was able to keep basic funding for education stable. Although some schools may be struggling, he said, the legislature has allotted $49 million to aid distressed schools.

“Some of those reports you’ve seen on the Internet, some of those schools will receive this additional funding,” Clymer said. “In some of these cases where there are distressed schools, not all, but in some cases, it was total mismanagement of money. They got additional money from the state and they totally mismanaged it. … We do have a plan for distressed schools, to go in there and help them with their situation.

“I think overall, this budget for education is a good one,” he added. “I can live with it.”

The Next Storm?

Even with the deep cuts education has had to make in recent years, the situation may get worse in January. If Congress cannot agree by Jan. 1 on how to reduce the national debt by $1.2 trillion, federal education programs stand to lose billions in a process of automatic cuts known as sequestration.

“There is a light at the end of the tunnel, but right before the light at the end of the tunnel is a train coming for them and it’s sequestration,” said Noelle Ellerson, assistant director of policy analysis and advocacy for the American Association of School Administrators. “It’s whether the track the train is on continues to head straight for districts or whether it gets rerouted. A fragile recovery is starting to take hold, but sequestration could derail that.”

Schools Struggle with Cuts as State Revenues Continue to Lag