State Schools Budgets Strained By Slowdown

By: - November 13, 2001 12:00 am

Thanks in part to budget surpluses, governors and state legislators have been trying to improve public education, offering teachers more pay and students better schooling. But when the economy began to slow and legislators had to tighten strings, no one realized just how fast and deep the cuts would be.

Even as late as last spring, “The question wasn’t are you going to spend more, but which program will you spend more on,” said Mike Griffith, a policy analyst for the Education Commission on the States.

That all changed in September when terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, aggravating an economic decline. The devastation was felt across the states affecting most budgets and sending a number of legislatures into special sessions to cut back on this year’s spending.

“Before we were looking at a traditional recession. What we are seeing here is a downturn that was so quick that states did not see this coming,”Griffith said.

Governors and legislators are striving to save K-12 and school reforms from the budget ax. But with more than half the states imposing or considering cuts, sparing K-12 budgets and programs that help students meet new state standards of learning may not be an option.

“Governors want to wait until there is absolutely no alternative before making cuts to education,” said Scott Pattison, executive director of the National Association of State Budget Officers.

States that have cut education budgets or are considering such action include: Alabama, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Carolina, New York, Ohio and South Carolina.

Before the attacks, California was looking at an $8 billion shortfall. Now it’s expected to grow to $12 billion. Since California schools eat up more than half the general funds there is no way to keep K-12 off the chopping block.

New York projects a $9 billion deficit. The Empire State hasn’t passed this year’s budget yet. After missing an April deadline, lawmakers were preparing a supplemental budget when the World Trade Center was struck.

In Buffalo, the state’s second largest school district, 433 teachers and 124 staff members have been laid off and some of the impoverished district’s 80 schools are being closed.

Buffalo Schools Superintendent Marion Canedo says the terrorist attacks have had a “devastating domino effect” across the state. But Canedo tells, “the highest price is paid in our educational programs in our urban cities because we are the most dependent on state aid.”

Albany pays nearly 80 percent of the Buffalo school bill. The city began the school year with a cautious spending outline given to them by the legislature. “The budget we passed was based on a very conservative estimate of what our state package would be,” said Canedo.

The City and schools were assured Albany would give them extra help in September. But they haven’t seen any money, according to the Superintendent’s office. In fact, they have a $28 million shortfall.

“How can we meet the state standards if we don’t have teachers in the classroom, and no academic intervention? We have children who just got here speaking a foreign language and they are in high school and they have to pass the same Regents exam as anyone who has been going to school here since Kindergarten,” said Canedo.

Buffalo isn’t the only place where reforms could suffer. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino has warned of cuts that will affect classrooms. Des Moines, Iowa teachers don’t have enough supplies. School computer equipment, field trips and reading programs are in jeopardy since Iowa lawmakers cut 4.3 percent from schools.

“Whenever you have to make cuts in education, it’s always going to impact kids,” United Community Schools Superintendent Ann Curphey told the Des Moines Register.

Griffith says that before September 11, states were freezing funds for extra school programs such as early childhood schooling and reading for the first time in five years. Now New York is cutting academic intervention, a program that helps 43 percent of Empire State students’ pass the state test.

States are also postponing plans to reduce class size, launch professional development programs and give teachers pay raises.

Iowa was the first state to approve a “pay for performance” plan for teachers and a number of states were watching the program in the hope of copying it. But this was the first thing Iowa lawmakers delayed when the bad fiscal times hit.

Mississippi had authorized a pay raise for teachers, but that is not expected to happen, and New Mexico was also looking at ways to improve the quality of teaching, but the legislature recently took the proposals off the table.

The slowdown “hits every state differently. If you are Florida – a state that lives in large part on sales taxes generated from tourists – it is a killer,” says Bruce Hunter, government affairs specialist for the American Association of School Administrators.

Here is how other states are cutting back on K-12:

  • Michigan, another sales tax dependent state, is cutting three percent of its education budget.
  • Ohio’s GOP wants to cut $27 million from school bureaucracy. The department of education submitted a plan for cutting $43 million. No matter what, school construction is expected to take a big hit.
  • In Nebraska, a teacher pay raise has been taken off the table. Special education, school consolidation, school lunches and other programs will most likely be trimmed.
  • Idaho is cutting 1.5 percent of the education budget.
  • Alabama cut six percent ( million) from the budget in February and Gov. Don Siegelman has signed a pledge to not cut more. A special session is planned before Christmas to consider education funding since a $150 million shortfall is expected.
  • Florida’s Senate is proposing $118 million in cuts to schools.
  • Massachusetts cut 300 school nurse positions; charter schools and school construction are expected to feel the pinch next.
  • Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes promised not to let cuts effect the classroom or school reforms, but the legislature must cut school budgets by 2.5 percent this year and 5 percent next year. The state board of education has suggested cuts to rural schools, after school programs and school field officers.
  • Arizona schools make up two-thirds of the two-year budget and the state expects a $1.6 billion shortage. Governor Jane Hull has pulled education off the chopping block invoking a voter-passed proposition that protects school spending. But the House Appropriations Chair Laura Knaperek says schools must be cut.
  • Connecticut Gov. John G. Rowland cut spending on early childhood education and called a special session. More school programs could lose funding. Still, State Schools Chief Theodore S. Sergi asked for more education spending for 2002-2003. He argued that an additional $71 million is needed to comply with court ordered racial integration as well as vocational education needs, reading, summer school and after school programs.
  • Iowa is expected to institute an across-the board 4.3 percent cut in funding for school districts.

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