Politicians Balance Budgets With Money for Classrooms

Politicians Balance Budgets With Money for Classrooms
An average of one of every three dollars state governments spend goes to primary and secondary education. Photographer: Kevin P. Coughlin/Bloomberg

U.S. governors and legislatures facing deficits of more than $140 billion are slashing local school budgets, cuts that may mean jammed classrooms, fewer teachers and libraries without librarians.

The Texas Legislature is considering a 13 percent reduction in education funding and South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard recommended taking 10 percent out of per-pupil spending. Cuts proposed in those states, and in Kansas, Washington, Ohio and Iowa, come after New Jersey Governor Chris Christie took $820 million away from schools in his current $29.4 billion budget.

“It’s been a sacred cow, pretty much the very last thing that state officials want to touch,” said Scott Pattison, executive director of the National Association of State Budget Officers in Washington. The cuts reflect the deepest recession in a generation, the prospect of a slow recovery and the realization that easy choices have already been made, he said.

U.S. public-school funding totaled $337.4 billion in fiscal 2010, according to the budget officers group. An average of one of every three dollars state governments spend goes to primary and secondary education, according to the association. That presents an almost unavoidable target, said Arturo Perez, chief budget analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver.

“It becomes increasingly difficult to keep one-third of their spending off the table,” he said in a telephone interview. “We’ve always used K-12 education as a measure of how difficult a situation is.”

Yawning Gaps

The states’ combined $140 billion-plus shortfall in the coming budget year follows more than $430 billion in budget gaps from 2009 to 2011, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington research group.

Those who invest in state and municipal debt see distress: Yields on top-rated tax-exempt bonds due in 10 years have jumped 132 basis points since Sept. 2, according to a Bloomberg Valuation index. A basis point is 0.01 percentage point. Investors withdrew about $21 billion in assets from muni mutual funds from Nov. 17 through Jan. 19, according to data from Lipper US Fund Flows, a Denver-based research firm.

“We have a government section with an unsustainable financial model,” Michigan Governor Rick Snyder said in his Jan. 19 inaugural address.

Medicaid, Pensions

Many governors, including Snyder, have yet to present budgets for the fiscal year that in many states begins July 1. In State of the State messages and campaign promises, many have said they will target spending for Medicaid, costs of pension obligations and public employee wage-and-benefit packages.

“You can’t balance the budget on the back of the Historic Preservation Department,” Pattison said in a telephone interview from his office. “You’ve got to go to where the money is.”

Union leaders say the plans will hurt children and make the U.S. less competitive globally. The education cuts are “a terribly ominous signal,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

“At the very same time as we talk about investing in kids and making sure that we are equipped for the knowledge economy,” she said, “we are cutting services for kids.”

Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, the biggest U.S. teachers’ union, said cutting taxes by slashing aid to education would be “penny wise, pound foolish.”

Regret Expressed

Representative Jim Pitts, the main budget writer in the Texas House of Representatives, expressed regret as he spent two hours explaining cuts to lawmakers Jan. 19. He hoped to minimize damage to the main school-funding program and financial aid for college students, said Pitts, a Waxahachie Republican.

“Reductions even to those areas was unavoidable,” he said. “This is just the beginning of a discussion with all of you over what our state’s priorities should be.”

The Texas budget proposes spending a combined $7 billion less on public schools in the 2012 and 2013 fiscal years than in the current two-year cycle. Enrollment will increase by about 160,000 students during the period, the Texas Education Agency estimates.

“If you cut education, you are basically cutting off your state and your country from future success,” said Lindsay Rosenthal, a parent who is co-chair of an Austin group fighting plans to close an elementary school. “The politicians don’t see these issues from the ground level.”

In New Jersey, parents are already coping with the effect of Christie’s cuts.

‘Red Schoolhouse’

Patrick Rowe, vice president of the school board in Madison, 23 miles (37 kilometers) west of Manhattan, said the district lost $1.6 million in state aid. It cut out junior-high sports and began charging a $100 fee for extracurricular activities. It eliminated 16 positions, and teachers took a wage freeze. He said the classroom experience has been preserved, so far.

“Do we really want to go back to a one-room red schoolhouse where all the kids are packed in?” Rowe said. “The system is not going to collapse. But it will keep chipping away at it.”

In Kansas, newly elected Governor Sam Brownback proposed cutting base education aid by $232 per student. Overall education spending would increase under Brownback’s proposal because of costs linked to building projects and teacher pensions.

Double Threat

Republican lawmakers in Ohio are pushing to scrap an all-day kindergarten program that had been implemented by former Democratic Governor Ted Strickland, according to a report in the Dayton Daily News. In Iowa, the legislature is considering the elimination of state-paid preschool for all 4-year-olds, the Des Moines Register reported.

Noelle Ellerson, assistant director for Policy Analysis and Advocacy at the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Virginia, said districts face the double threat of declining state support and the loss of federal money.

“It’s a dark picture for school funding,” Ellerson wrote in a December report, “Surviving a Thousand Cuts: America’s Public Schools and the Recession.”

The persistence of the recession threatens to “overwhelm even the resilient public school system,” she wrote

“If education is one of the last to be cut, will it be one of the first to be re-funded?” Ellerson asked in a telephone interview. “I don’t think so.”

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