The Year School Budget Cuts Went Straight to the Classroom

This has been a season of changes in school funding and policy unlike any in recent memory. There may be nothing like it for a long time.
by | June 14, 2011

By Josh Goodman, Stateline Staff Writer

“Today marks the beginning of a very dark week at The School District of Philadelphia,” began a press release issued last Monday by the District itself. No doubt many Philadelphia school employees would agree. That day, the District issued layoff notices to 3,024 of its workers, including 1,523 of the District’s approximately 11,000 teachers.

Budget problems are nothing new for Philadelphia’s School District, which was taken over by the state of Pennsylvania a decade ago in part because of its chronic funding problems. Through all those difficulties, though, it has no recent history of teacher layoffs on this scale.

The moves were designed to close a $629 million shortfall in the School District’s $2.7 billion budget -- a gap caused by the end of federal stimulus funding and the knowledge that cuts in state funding were on the way.

Similar difficulties are widespread throughout the country. In many states, this was the second or third or fourth year of budget cuts to education since the recession began. While final nationwide numbers aren’t available -- several states haven’t finished their Fiscal Year 2012 budgets --governors have proposed a net of $2.5 billion in cuts to K-12 education and $5 billion in cuts to higher education, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers.

What makes this year different from the previous two years is that more school districts are running out of ways to absorb the cuts without affecting what takes place in the classroom. Decisions made by legislatures have contributed to teacher layoff debates in school systems large and small, from New York City to New Albany, Indiana. In Philadelphia, the district’s budget for fiscal 2012 doesn’t just rely on layoffs. It mostly does away with school bus service too.

As consequential as the cuts are, they’re only half the story of educational upheaval in the states in 2011. The last six months saw major legislation expanding private school vouchers, shifts in how teachers are evaluated and how easily they can be fired, and, as has been widely reported, epic battles over teachers’ collective bargaining powers.

Add it up and it amounts to momentous change. But because the change marks such a substantial break from the past, it's also fragile. There’s a real possibility that some of what happened in 2011 will be reversed in the coming years or even the coming months.

College cutbacks

Bleak as the situation in Philadelphia's public schools may seem, it would be difficult to find a bigger education budget cut than the one that the University of Washington is about to endure. Three years ago, state support for Washington’s flagship university was $400 million. As a result of the budget lawmakers passed this year, it will now be $200 million.

As Washington’s plight suggests, higher education continued to bear the brunt of state budget cuts in 2011. In Nevada, for example, state funding for colleges and universities will drop by 15 percent -- and that was considered a victory for higher ed because the governor had proposed a 29 percent cut earlier in the legislative session.

Lawmakers targeted higher ed because it’s easier to cut -- legally, politically and logistically -- than K-12 schools, roads, prisons or health care. “There’s no one here that particularly likes cutting higher education,” says Randy Hodgins, University of Washington’s vice president of External Affairs. “It’s just that it’s not constitutionally protected and we don’t have to get permission from the federal government.”

Colleges and universities, of course, can also raise tuition to offset some of the reductions. At some schools, it’s going to go up exceptionally quickly. The University of Washington’s tuition will rise by at least 16 percent next year. In Arizona, state budget cuts this year prompted a 20 percent increase in tuition at Arizona State University.

Unlike higher ed, elementary and secondary education funding has long been something close to the third rail of state government, untouchable for Democrats and Republicans alike. But you wouldn’t know that from looking at some of this year’s state budgets.

In Kansas, base aid per pupil in grades K-12 will drop by $232. In Florida, the reduction in the approved budget is $542 per student. In Texas, legislators are on the cusp of cutting state K-12 aid by $4 billion over the next two years compared with the state’s previous education funding formula. In Pennsylvania, Governor Tom Corbett’s budget would drop K-12 funding by $1 billion. These cuts are occurring just as federal stimulus funding expires and local property tax revenue is struggling to keep pace as a result of the housing market’s weakness.

Some districts have squirreled away reserves, knowing this year was coming. Many, though, will have little choice but to cut from the largest part of their budget: personnel. In past economic downturns, most districts never reached this point. “We’re really seeing teachers getting laid off now,” says Kevin Carey, policy director of Education Sector, a school reform think tank. “That’s the biggest difference.”

Taking on teachers

In almost any other year, these cuts and their consequences would have been the dominant education story. In many states in 2011, however, they shared the headlines with sweeping proposals to change education policy.

Those proposals most famously included measures to restrict or end collective bargaining power for teachers -- proposals that ended up passing in Indiana, Tennessee, Idaho, Ohio and Wisconsin. But they went far beyond that.

School vouchers were back at the center of attention in many legislatures, after the movement to create more of them had seemed dead a couple of years ago. Teachers faced scrutiny in a way they never had before, as lawmakers discussed how they should be paid, evaluated and fired.

Florida lawmakers ended tenure for newly hired teachers. They passed legislation to make it easier for charter schools and virtual schools to expand. Most dramatically, they enacted a merit pay plan for teachers that, starting in 2014, will base half of the decision about a teacher’s raise on students’ standardized test scores. That means every class will need to have accompanying tests. Many observers describe it as the nation’s most aggressive merit pay plan for K-12 education.

Indiana also approved charter school legislation and merit pay legislation. The state’s most noted school policy enactment, though, was one that offers private school vouchers to families with incomes up to about $61,000, with no requirement that the students come from troubled schools. Starting in three years, there will be no cap on how many students can participate, meaning Indiana may have just created the nation’s first universal voucher system for low- and middle-income students. The bill was one of the reasons why Indiana’s House Democratic minority fled the state for nearly six weeks to try to stall legislative action. They considered the move an assault on public school systems.

There are two big reasons why these debates happened this year, not five years ago or ten years ago. One is that the prospect of budget cuts led states to try to find ways to help (or force) districts to spend less. In Michigan, lawmakers cut education funding, but also voted to give school districts more flexibility in withholding step salary increases from teachers after their contracts have expired. The two moves were related. “We used the budget mess to say if you’re going to cut us, you’d better help us on the other side,” says Don Wotruba, deputy director of the Michigan Association of School Boards.

The other reason is the Republican victories last November. Those victories were the single most important factor in making this year in education quite different from last year.

In 2010, states focused much of their energy on changing their rules to compete for funding under the Race to the Top federal aid program. In particular, they passed laws to adopt common academic standards, lift barriers to charter schools and overhaul teacher evaluations. Race to the Top was an Obama administration initiative, but these changes often enjoyed broad support from Republicans too.

This year, with Republican majorities in control in more states, a more conservative vision for changing education took hold. States went further on charter schools and teacher evaluation than they had a year earlier. Vouchers and collective bargaining -- subjects Race to the Top didn’t touch -- were at the forefront. “This is not fiddling around the edges,” says Michael J. Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a school policy research center. “This is taking the fight directly to the teachers union.”

Attempts at reversal

One of the key questions ahead is whether the next round of education policy changes will look more like those of 2010 or 2011. Kevin Carey of Education Sector points out that, before this year, the familiar faces of education reform were often big city mayors and school superintendents. That’s changed. Today, they’re Republican governors such as Mitch Daniels in Indiana, Rick Scott in Florida and John Kasich in Ohio.

Some of these governors are unpopular. All of them are people whom teachers unions and their allies will have no hesitancy about trying to defeat. Their actions could be reversed the next time political leadership is up for decision at the polls, or by court action in some of the numerous lawsuits that the 2011 legislation is destined to generate.

Some of the changes, in fact, could be reversed before then, if state revenues continue to improve. Already Michigan has restored some K-12 funding after finding out that more money was coming in. Even Florida’s Rick Scott -- perhaps the most committed of the Tea Party governors -- has gotten into the act.

Standing in front of banners that said, “Less Waste, More for Education,” Scott vetoed $615 million from the budget lawmakers sent him and asked them to use the savings to boost spending on schools. Legislators complained that Scott had himself proposed a 10 percent cut to K-12. Now he wanted funding to be restored. "I'm confident,” Scott said as he announced the move, “that school funding is far more important than spending those dollars on alligator marketing, or boat racing or anything else that the Tallahassee insiders think is so important."

Statements like that suggest K-12 education may eventually return to its typical place -- as the favorite portion of the budget for both Democrats and Republicans. Where the school reform movement may be headed isn’t as clear, though it would be hard for 2012 to match 2011 when it comes to contentious fights on far-reaching education policy. “I don’t think we’re going to see a year like 2011 again anytime soon,” says Petrilli.


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