Obamacare for schools
- 2010/02/15 02:42:42
- Read all 8 opinions
Let them sink
Schools face big budget holes as stimulus runs out
Feb 14, 2:54 PM (ET)
By TERENCE CHEA
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - The nation's public schools are falling under
severe financial stress as states slash education spending and drain
federal stimulus money that staved off deep classroom cuts and
widespread job losses.
School districts have already suffered big budget cuts since the
recession began two years ago, but experts say the cash crunch will get
a lot worse as states run out of stimulus dollars.
The result in many hard-hit districts: more teacher layoffs, larger
class sizes, smaller paychecks, fewer electives and extracurricular
activities, and decimated summer school programs.
The situation is particularly ugly in California, where school
districts are preparing for mass layoffs and swelling class sizes as
the state grapples with another massive budget shortfall.
The crisis concerns parents like Michelle Parker in San Francisco,
where the school district is preparing to lay off hundreds of school
employees and raise class sizes because it faces a $113 million budget
deficit over next two years.
"I'm worried they're not going to have the quality education that's
going to make them competitive in a global society," said Parker, who
has three kids in district elementary schools.
Around the country, state governments are cutting money for schools as
they grapple with huge budget gaps triggered by high unemployment,
sluggish retail sales and falling real estate prices. A recent report
by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that 41 states face
midyear budget shortfalls totaling $35 billion.
"The states are facing a dismal financial picture," said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy.
The Obama administration's $787 billion federal stimulus package
provided roughly $100 billion for education, including $54 billion to
stabilize state budgets. In October the White House said the stimulus
created or saved 250,000 education jobs.
But many states have used most of their stimulus money, leaving little to cushion budget cuts in the coming fiscal year.
Experts say the looming cuts could weaken the nation's public schools,
worsen unemployment, undermine President Obama's education goals and
widen the achievement gap between students in rich and poor districts.
Wealthier communities are filling school budget gaps with local tax
increases and aggressive fundraising, but could worsen inequality and
undermine the larger system for paying for public schools, said John
Rogers, who heads the UCLA Institute for Democracy, Education and
In Michigan, which has the nation's highest unemployment rate, school
districts lost 2 percent of their state money this year and could lose
another 4 percent next year because of a projected government shortfall
of $1.6 billion. Most of more than $1 billion in federal stimulus money
Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm has proposed an incentive program to
entice about 39,000 public school employees to retire, but that plan
has been criticized by the state's largest teachers union.
"Our districts don't know what the next step is," said Don Wotruba,
deputy director with the Michigan Association of School Boards.
In Washington state, school districts that lost $1.7 billion in state
money over the past two years are bracing for another round of cuts as
lawmakers try to plug a $2.8 billion state deficit.
Seattle Public Schools, the state's largest district, plans to lay off
nonunion staff, freeze hiring, create more efficient bus routes and
increase class sizes further to close an expected budget shortfall of
In Florida, public schools are being squeezed by state budget cuts and
an unexpected increase in student enrollment, including an influx of
Haitian students in the aftermath of Haiti's devastating earthquake.
Districts have been coping by closing schools during breaks, cutting
energy costs and changing transportation routes, but the next round of
cuts is expected to hit classrooms.
"We're at a point now where you just can't stretch that rubber band any
further," said Bill Montford, CEO of the Florida Association of
District School Superintendents.
In California, school districts have already laid off thousands of
teachers, increased class sizes and slashed academic programs.
But state officials are warning the worst is yet to come because the
state has already handed out most of its $6 billion in stimulus money.
Per-pupil spending for K-12 schools fell 4 percent last year and would
be slashed another 8 percent under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's
proposed budget for 2010-2011, according to the state Legislative
"It's cataclysmic. It hasn't been seen since the Great Depression,"
said Bruce Fuller, an education professor at the University of
California, Berkeley. "Now you're talking about sizable layoffs and
further increases in class sizes."
More districts are expected to look like Vallejo City Unified School
District, which has laid off most of its middle school guidance
counselors and no longer offers music or art in elementary school. Last
year it laid off 60 of its 860 teachers and raised K-3 class sizes from
20 to 28 students, and officials are considering more layoffs and even
bigger class sizes this year, said Christal Watts, who heads the
Lori Peck, a first-grade teacher at Vallejo's Patterson Elementary
School, said the larger class size means she can no longer give her
students the individual attention they need.
"I feel like my class in general is further behind where they should
be," Peck said. "My concern is they don't reach the standards by the
end of the year."
In San Francisco, Superintendent Carlos Garcia said he's worried the
cuts will reverse the district's progress in narrowing the achievement
gap between black and Hispanic students and their white and Asian
"These cuts hurt some of our poorest and neediest kids," Garcia said.
"The decisions that school boards and superintendents have to make
pretty much go against the grain of everything we believe in."
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