School Reform Gets an Incomplete

Education initiatives feel the pinch of the war on terror

Education Secretary Rod Paige was the key attraction at the heavily guarded gathering of governors and CEOs attending the annual National Education Summit on Oct. 9. But his usual pitch for school reform was overshadowed by the moving tributes he and other speakers offered to the New York City teachers who had bravely led thousands of schoolchildren to safety after the attack on the Twin Towers.

It was a stark reminder of how the nation's priorities have shifted. Prior to that terrible Tuesday, President George W. Bush and most governors had education at the top of the nation's to-do list. But now schools have taken a backseat to the war on terrorism and the sudden slowdown of the U.S. economy.

NO-SHOWS. The summit showed just how much school reform has lost the spotlight. Planned as a star-studded celebration of a new era of reform, it wound up all but ignored as the crisis kept away luminaries such as Bush, his brother, Florida Governor Jeb Bush, and California Governor Gray Davis.

More damaging are the harsh new constraints on spending as more states face mounting budget crises. After years of debate, many states had begun to pursue ambitious reforms, from higher standards to more equality of funding between rich and poor districts. But as money dries up, "things won't move as quickly," warns Jack Jennings, head of the Center on Education Policy.

Even before September 11, school spending had slowed sharply in many states. Education outlays were budgeted to rise an average of 3.7% in the fiscal year that ends next June in most states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). That's well below the recent rate (chart).

Some states have already had to make cuts. A looming budget shortfall forced Alabama to slice school spending by 6.2% this year. Minnesota has whacked everything from teaching positions to busing.

Many more states will encounter similar pain in light of the economic slowdown. Ohio Superintendent Susan T. Zelman says she "will probably have to take a 6% cut" in her department's budget. On Oct. 11, Iowa Governor Thomas J. Vilsack ordered an across-the-board spending cut of 4.3%, though he will ask the legislature to "restore as much funding as possible" to schools. Warns Kentucky Governor Paul E. Patton: "It will be a real challenge" to keep education funding at current levels next year.

Innovative reforms are often first to go. In Iowa, for example, the nation's most ambitious effort to tie teacher pay more closely to their skills "won't be scaled up as quickly as we would like," says Ted Stilwill, director of the state's education department. Reform has been stopped cold in Tennessee, where the legislature rejected all new initiatives because money was so tight.

Nowhere is the pain more acute than in New York. Even before September 11, the legislature had approved a bare-bones hike in the school operating budget. But with estimates that the attacks could cost the state and city budgets more than $10 billion, schools may suffer lasting damage. In New York City, "further cuts could provide an impetus for people to leave the city," warns American Federation of Teachers President Sandra Feldman.

Many state officials also worry that the President's education bill could impose expensive new burdens on them. The plan to test students in grades 3 to 8 could cost states more than $1 billion in the first three years, figures the NCSL. "Our honest opinion [is] that this `reform' [could] stop us in our tracks and send us off on a new and not necessarily successful course," the NCSL wrote in a Sept. 26 letter to Congress.

To be sure, there's still support for school reform. Congress is expected to pass most of Bush's education bill by Thanksgiving, probably with an extra $4 billion or so in federal education spending. But that won't solve the funding crunch, since the feds provide just 7% of the nation's school budget.

The upshot is that education reform may be nearing a crossroads. During the boom years, fixing public schools seemed like a relatively painless crusade. Now, states face excruciating tradeoffs between expensive reforms and shrinking revenues. Scaling back may seem prudent now, but the long-term cost could be high.

By William C. Symonds in Boston

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