Budget Crunch Threatens School Reforms

As state revenues nosedive, educators are bracing for major cutbacks in spending, and the the pinch comes just as they're being held accountable for student performance. Faced with the potential cost of school finance court cases and shrinking budgets, many lawmakers are scrambling to find dollars to support school reforms.

The question state lawmakers are asking is, "are we going to have enough to maintain the standards and assessments under the budget crunch?" Shelby Samuelson, an education finance analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) says She noted that there are costs associated with sustaining reform, including the cost of testing and intervening in failing schools.

University of Wisconsin education professor Allan Odden thinks education in general will do all right despite the budget crunch. "Education has a priority position in many state legislatures, so that will help it even more when the economy isn't as good as it has been," he said.

Ohio and Alabama are both trying to reduce their overall budgets in the face of court orders to equalize spending on public schools.

The Buckeye State is facing a two front battle, trying to meet a court order to finance rich and poor schools equally and pay for reforms at the same time that tax revenues have taken a sharp downturn. Revenues are expected to fall $850 million below estimates over the next two years, and the state has already sliced the budgets of other programs to fund schools.

"The budget in Ohio is tight," said Odden. Despite a dark budget forecast, Ohio legislators are staying committed to what they have to do for schools by putting money above normal growth, he adds.

Alabama's Governor Don Siegelman had to ask every state agency to cut 6.2 percent from their budget. That would be a cut of nearly $300 million for education. But the courts stepped in and banned any cuts in the K-12 budget. Instead, higher education is feeling the ax. are expected.

Schools in New Jersey's poorest districts have been promised extra money to improve teaching and provide preschool, but they need $1.3 billion more than they're getting now and state revenues are projected to leave the budget $30 million in the red.

New Jersey's Supreme Court ruled in 1998 in Abbott v Burke that the state had to rebuild old school buildings and help poor communities set up preschool programs as well as implement school reforms. The $1.3 billion doesn't begin to address this need: it would only pay for more teachers, additional training and other costs of student improvement.

Mississippi's budget woes are especially acute. "Without the economy turning around, certainly there isn't going to be enough revenue in Mississippi to do some of the things that need to be done in Mississippi for education," said Steve Williamson, special assistant to the state superintendent of education.

Mississippi district superintendents briefly considered shortening the school week to four days when they were asked how to function under severe budget cuts. "Someone brought up the idea of four day school week, but there was never any serious consideration of it," said Williamson. Alabama, Delaware, Florida, Iowa, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin have plans to slash their budgets overall, according to a NCSL survey. Education, healthcare and prisons are the three biggest line items in state budgets.

Most states pay for about half the cost of public education. They do so with revenues from income and sales taxes. City and county property taxes pay for about 45 percent of the cost, and the federal government picks up the rest.

"States in the South and the Midwest that rely on sales tax are running into budget crunches right now and they are big enough crunches that they are effecting education, " Mike Griffith, an analyst at the Education Commission on the States (ECS) told Stateline.org.

Some state leaders protested when US President George W. Bush unveiled his tax cut plan because it could bring an additional drop in state revenues (see Federal Estate Tax Repeal Would Affect States ). Compounding the problem, Bush has proposed sweeping education reforms that include increased costs to states for testing and dealing with failing schools by providing teacher retraining, student tutoring and other palliatives.

"A number of the states that whole-heartedly supported Bush's education proposals in the beginning are now sitting down and doing the numbers. And if the Feds aren't going to pick up the costs the states will have to - there is real concern there all these new costs are on top of existing ones,"said Griffith. 

Other trouble signs:

  • Hawaii's Governor Ben Cayetano had to deal with a 20-day statewide teacher strike because he couldn't find a way to raise teacher pay. A salary raise would mean cutting other state department budgets. The Honolulu Advertiser published Cayetano's memo ordering department heads to get ready for cuts of up to $230 million for next year to cover a raise. A settlement was recently negotiated.
  • California has just embarked on an aggressive and expensive school reform package. The state's student population is exploding and it has been spending millions rewarding successful schools and intervening in failing ones. The Golden State is constitutionally required to spend its surplus on education. But the electric power crisis is draining the surplus rapidly.
  • Kentucky's Governor Paul Patton asked state agencies to plan on reducing their budgets to accommodate up to a $300 million shortfall. Patton is trying to protect elementary and higher education from the budget cuts.
  • Arkansas scheduled a $3,000 raise for teachers, which could cost up to $122 million a year. But there are competing priorities such as public defenders pay, and mental health care. 
  • In Arizona, lawmakers slashed $30 million for language instruction from the education budget to deal with revenue shortfalls. In Flores vs. Arizona, a federal judge ordered more spending to teach English to non-English speaking students. The Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest plans to sue if the legislature doesn't restore the $30 million to the budget.  
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