Recession Continues for Classrooms as School Funding Lags
As she hands out student papers to juniors in her English class at Nathan Hale High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma, teacher Jessica West tells them she needs their help grading.
She has 216 students this year, up from 150 in past years. One class has 39. “I just realized, time-wise, I can’t do it on my own,” she said.
Tulsa’s public-school class sizes have swollen after state education cuts that linger amid the economic recovery. Oklahoma is one of 34 states spending less per pupil in kindergarten through 12th grade this year than six years ago, when adjusted for inflation, the Washington-based Center on Budget & Policy Priorities said in a report. Oklahoma’s 23 percent reduction was deepest, followed by Alabama, Arizona and Kansas.
“It is a recipe for massive, wasted human potential,” said Jonah Edelman, founder and chief executive officer of Stand for Children, a Washington-based public-education advocacy group. “It is a diminishment in the quality of K-12 education at a time when students need to make it to post-secondary education to get a decent-paying job.”
Facing declining revenue in the longest recession since the 1930s, states closed cumulative budget gaps of $600 billion in the five years that ended in fiscal 2012, according to an April report by the budget center. As the largest cost in many state budgets, school spending took a hit. U.S. school districts have cut 324,000 jobs since 2008, according to the center.
Oklahoma faced two consecutive years of billion-dollar deficits, Governor Mary Fallin said. This year, the state’s spending about $200 million less on per-pupil formula funding for public schools than in fiscal 2008, or about $1.84 billion. State revenue has rebounded to pre-recession levels, unemployment is down to 5.3 percent, the state’s reserve fund swelled to as much as $577 million and Fallin pushed for and signed a series of tax cuts.
“My goal has been to grow the economy so that we will have more money to put towards important priorities of the state, and education is one of our top priorities,” said Fallin, a Republican who took office in 2011, in an interview in her Oklahoma City office.
While cutting education, Fallin and lawmakers set new requirements for schools aimed at increasing teacher accountability and boosting academic achievement. This year, lawmakers raised state spending on K-12 education by $74 million, mostly for the new mandates and rising benefit costs.
Fallin, who has made education and workforce development the focus of her term as chair of the National Governors Association, said she believes efficiencies can be found throughout government, including in education. Funding levels don’t always equal success, she said.
“An important part of education is not only looking at funding, but also looking at outcomes,” she said, pointing to the state’s national math test scores, which have held steady even as funding fell. She said she doesn’t know whether she will seek to increase school financing next year.
“We’ve really focused on education reforms, making sure that we raise our academic standards, that we require rigor in the classroom, that we have the best teachers possible,” Fallin said.
Schools should be more efficient, be pickier in the teachers they hire and use more technology for classroom instruction, said Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of the Fordham Institute, a Washington-based policy group that supports school choice and greater accountability in education.
“We haven’t had a system that has been very good in using dollars effectively,” Petrilli said. “There are places that have pumped in a lot of money and haven’t seen very good results, and places that have learned to do things with less money.”
The cuts may be undermining education reform efforts, said Michael Leachman, director of state fiscal research for the Center on Budget and author of its school report. More rigorous standards and adequate funding should go hand-in-hand, he said.
“Cutting your basic state aid is very damaging to your ability to produce a well-educated workforce for the future and that has major implications to your state economy,” Leachman said. “You can’t slash funding for your schools and expect them to achieve higher standards at the same time. It just doesn’t make sense.”
Across the country, many schools are doing more with less - - or just doing less. Arizona ended its support for all-day kindergarten in 2010, dismantling an initiative by former Democratic Governor Janet Napolitano, the former Homeland Security secretary who is now president of the University of California.
The Arizona Supreme Court ruled last week that lawmakers must increase financing for schools each year for inflation, a voter mandate that lawmakers had ignored during the downturn.
In Alabama, where total education spending has fallen by more than $1 billion since 2008, the state no longer pays most busing costs for districts, reducing support by more than $4 million. In Hoover, a suburb of Birmingham, the school board voted this summer to cut bus service entirely beginning next school year, except for special-education students.
The move, which parents protested would hurt the poorest families most, will free up more than $2.5 million a year that will go toward classrooms and deficit reduction, according to a memo on the school system’s website. That’s not an option for a larger district like Jefferson County, with 36,000 students around Birmingham, said county Superintendent Stephen Nowlin.
“Since we can’t cut out bus service, we have to take $4 million from somewhere else in our budget,” he said. “We’re going to have to make some tough budget choices next year.”
In Tulsa, state support for the 40,000-student district fell to $151 million in 2012-2013 from $168.5 million in 2007-2008. The school system, which grew by more than 2,000 students during that time, expects to lose another $1 million in aid this year, finance director Joe Stoeppelwerth said.
To deal with the reduction, the district closed 14 schools, getting rid of traditional middle schools entirely, Superintendent Keith Ballard said. It cut 250 teaching positions and 150 administrative and support jobs. Private donations and an insurance settlement are helping sustain dozens of other teacher posts, he said.
In high schools, many advanced placement classes and electives have disappeared. Some classes have swelled to more than 40 students as administrators try to keep lower numbers in courses needed for graduation tests, Hale Principal Caleb Starr said.
That’s pushed some trade-offs: In a biology classroom where Bunsen burners line the perimeter, the gas has been shut off because it was deemed too dangerous after extra tables were added to accommodate 34 students.
“The lack of funds and requirements -- it pinches you at both ends,” Starr said.
In Tulsa’s elementary schools, some classes have 30 students -- 10 more than the state allowed before the economic downturn.
“It’s a challenge to meet the individual needs of each student,” said Marion Munchinski, who sends some of her third-grade students to another class for an hour so she can work more closely with those who need extra help learning to read. “There are not enough hours in the day to do it when you have so many kids.”
As many as 20 percent of third-graders may fail a new state reading test required to advance, Ballard said.
Cooper Elementary in East Tulsa has three teacher openings, including one for the third grade. Principal Joy Modenbach said she’s having such a hard time finding candidates to interview that she recently tried to recruit her waiter while dining out. He was wearing a University of Oklahoma ring and said he’d been an education major.
At $44,128, the average annual salary for Oklahoma’s teachers last school year was the third-lowest in the nation, behind South Dakota and Mississippi, according to the National Education Association. The national average was $56,383.
Low pay is partly to blame for a statewide teacher shortage that has hit crisis levels, Oklahoma Superintendent Janet Barresi said. She’s asked school districts to dig into their reserves and find efficiencies to increase salaries.
A month and a half into the new school year, Tulsa Public Schools have almost 40 vacancies out of 2,400 positions. In some schools, classes are regularly taught by substitutes.
Ballard said there are no more efficiency savings to be had.
“We didn’t complain when the recession hit: we cut and cut,” Ballard said. “We were resourceful, we did what we could. My biggest shock was when the dollars came back, why didn’t we put it in education?”
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