U.S. schools in ‘category 5’ budget crisis

/ Source: msnbc.com

At the center of the country’s school funding crisis are little boys and girls like Kyle Wolfe, a 3-year-old pupil in Rising Stars, a pre-kindergarten program for at-risk children in communities near Rockford, Ill.

“I can’t even begin to describe the way Kyle has grown since starting this program,” said his mother, Carolyn.

Last week, the Harlem School District Board of Education, which serves the communities of Loves Park, Machesney Park and southern Roscoe, voted to eliminate Rising Stars because the state of Illinois hasn’t made good on the grants that support it. The vote means the nearly 400 youngsters the program serves “will be entering kindergarten delayed academically and socially,” said Lynn Wade, a pre-K teacher at the Donald C. Parker Early Education Center in Machesney Park.

No one disputes that Rising Stars is “an excellent program,” said Julie M. Morris, the school district’s superintendent. The decision to kill it “has nothing to do with how the program is run or what it provides to our students.” It’s just money.

Thousands of administrators and school board members across the country are making similar agonizing choices. While the recession has put a squeeze on all types of government programs, none has felt its impact more than education — the largest item in most states’ budgets.

Now, many states have nearly exhausted their windfalls from the federal economic stimulus plan, and with falling housing values shrinking property tax revenue — the largest source of public school funding — the question for state and local officials planning budgets for the next school year is: Will it be bad — or horribly bad?

For schools, historic decisionsThe retrenchment is coming as the Obama administration seeks to overhaul education law in a way that makes schools compete for federal grants. But critics say the focus should be on expanding funding for all schools, not imposing even higher standards while redistributing less money.

“Resources must be adequate and equalized across schools,” Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, said last week in congressional testimony on the plan.

Citing research by the NEA, the nation’s largest teachers union, he said that “almost no states are currently funding their educational systems adequately, and most states are around 25 percent short of funding their systems at a level adequate.”

Cuts that have been announced this year are staggering:

  • The Kansas City, Mo., School District is , with almost 300 teachers among those losing their jobs once 29 campuses go dark.
  • The Montgomery, Ala., Public School Board voted last week to lay off more than 600 employees, including 415 teachers, in what it said was just the first phase of staff reductions.
  • In the northwest suburbs of Chicago, the Illinois 46th District school board this week approved a proposal to lay off more than 1,000 employees — about 25 percent of the  district’s staff — to help make up a projected deficit of $44 million. More than 700 teachers would lose their jobs, including all first-, second- and third-year instructors.

Statewide, Illinois schools face budget cuts as high as 17 percent to make up , Gov. Pat Quinn warned last week.

In Atlanta, Superintendent Beverly L. Hall said this week that after years of cutbacks, her district’s 2010-11 budget will be almost 11 percent below its level of seven years ago.

Calling the impact a “category 5” crisis, Georgia’s state superintendent, Kathy Cox, said, “It’s going to be very tough next year. The stimulus came in and helped, but the cliff is coming."

Tens of thousands of California layoffs possibleAs stark as those figures are, they pale in comparison to the numbers lawmakers are wrestling with in California.

Monday to about 22,000 teachers and administrators, nearly 7 percent of the professional workforce; 10,000 so-called classified workers — bus drivers, maintenance workers and cafeteria staff — could also get the ax, state Superintendent Jack O’Connell said.

Nearly 900 teachers and administrators would lose their jobs in the San Francisco Unified School District, which must cut $113 million over the next two years.

“You’re inadequately funding students,” said Superintendent Carlos Garcia, whose district is considering suing the state to force it to fully fund schools.

“If you don’t act now, 10 years from now where are we going to be?” Garcia said. “We need to take control ourselves.”

How did we get here?Administrators had already been struggling to transform schools as population shifts to the suburbs left big-city districts with shrinking enrollments and excess facilities and suburban districts with ballooning enrollments crammed into inadequate facilities.

The recession, which started in late 2007, accelerated that transformation and brought it to a crisis. Faced with rapidly falling budgets, hundreds of urban districts are racing to close schools and consolidate teaching staffs: Detroit, where enrollment has fallen by 49 percent since 2002, announced Wednesday that it ; Cleveland, where enrollment has fallen to its lowest level since the 1890s, plans to close 16 schools, or more than 10 percent of its facilities; Pittsburgh, where enrollment has fallen by 35 percent since 1997, has closed 18 schools and put them up for sale.

“This is really impacting our large metro-area systems, and they’re making some very tough decisions about programs,” said Cox, the Georgia superintendent.

Those decisions aren’t abstract.

Federal education figures show that employee salaries make up about 80 percent of the typical school district’s budget. That means that “if you have to reduce your budget substantially the only way to do that is to reduce your teaching staff,” said Eric Churchwell, superintendent of schools in Palmyra, Mo.

Teacher layoffs mean bigger classes, said Churchwell, who projected that the student-teacher ratio at Palmyra High School could rise by 50 percent — from 20:1 to 30:1 — because of layoffs forced by cuts in the state education budget.

“The analogy I would use is we’re dealing with a tsunami rolling through our school divisions right now,” said David Stuckwisch, superintendent in Portsmouth, Va., which has shed nearly 350 jobs in the last few years and expects to see 90 more disappear in the next school year.

Joel Klein, chancellor of the New York City public schools, said the city had closed about 90 schools during this decade and faces the prospect of laying off as many as 8,500 teachers — or nearly 11 percent of its total — depending on how the state education budget turns out.

When that happens, Klein said, it’s students who pay the price.

“A lot of people complain about who got us into the financial mess we’re in,” he said. “I promise you this: The kids in New York City didn’t, and they shouldn’t bear the brunt of it.”