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Schools struggle amid years of budget cuts

Thursday, May 26, 2011

STOCKTON, Calif. -- The financial crisis hitting many of the nation's public schools is taking a heavy toll in cities such as Stockton, a blue-collar port city that struggles even in good times.

Perched on the edge of central California's delta, about an hour south of the state capital, the city of nearly 300,000 has had some of the highest home foreclosure and unemployment rates in a state that has ranked high in both categories.

The hard times have spread to the local schools. Last year, the district laid off 100 teachers, gutted its summer school program and raised class sizes from 20 students to 30 in kindergarten through third grade.

Now, amid uncertainty over the state budget, the 37,000-student district is laying off nearly 500 teachers, counselors, custodians and other employees. It also is preparing to pack as many as 36 students into elementary school classrooms.

The Great Recession that began in late 2007 set in motion a building budget crisis for American public schools that is far from over.

Around the country, states are cutting education spending to close gaping budget holes while school districts are running out of federal stimulus money that had prevented widespread job losses over the past two years.

As budgets shrink and expenses grow, districts are laying off large numbers of teachers, raising class sizes, cutting electives such as music and art, scrapping summer school programs and shortening the academic year.

Among the 275 pink-slipped Stockton teachers is Elizabeth Old, who has taught English at her alma mater, Franklin High School, since 2007. She's worried about how her students, many of whom only read at an elementary-school level, will learn if class sizes keep growing.

"What's going on is so antithetical to what works in education," Old said. "I'm 27. I'll be able to work somewhere eventually, but there are kids who are going to miss out on their basic education."

A national problem

Educators warn the school budget cuts are hurting the academic prospects of a generation of American students even as experts say the U.S. needs to invest more in education as it faces rising competition from China, India and other emerging economies.

"It's not just about the adults who lose their jobs. It's about the students who are impacted because they're no longer there," said Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association.

The cutbacks are expected to have a disproportionate effect on low-income communities that cannot soften the blow of state cuts with aggressive fundraising or local school taxes. Advocates worry that could further widen the achievement gap between students of different races.

At least 21 states have proposed cutting spending on K-12 education for the 2011-2012 fiscal year, according to a March report by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. That's in addition to at least 34 states that already have made cuts since the recession began.

"It's going to be bad, and it's going to get worse until the economy starts growing significantly," said Tom Loveless, who heads the Brown Center on Education Policy. "State revenues across the country are in deep trouble. They're way out of balance."

School spending is expected to hit bottom over the next two years as districts run out of $100 billion in federal stimulus aid for education and another $10 billion fund created to save teacher jobs last year, experts say.

The stimulus money saved about 368,000 school-related jobs during the 2009-2010 school year, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

A survey late last year of 692 school administrators by the American Association of School Administrators found that 48 percent laid off employees last year and 66 percent anticipate doing so this year.

With budget cuts hitting less experienced teachers the hardest, lawmakers in several states are pushing to eliminate "last hired, first fired" policies and allow districts to impose layoffs based on performance, not seniority.

Unions are fighting those moves. They say such changes would make it easier for districts to get rid of their highest paid teachers. They also question the methods used to determine which teachers are most effective.

Regardless of how the layoffs play out, educators say the depth of the cuts will leave a mark on many school districts for years to come.

"The budget crisis has been a devastating blow to our district and to our students," said Carl Toliver, superintendent of the Stockton Unified School District. "The whole culture of the district is changing right before our very eyes."


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