- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Marching bands are silenced. Sports programs, summer school and driver’s education are being slashed. Schools are facing closure and consolidation.

Teachers, many now vacuuming their own classrooms, have been told to do away with space heaters and office refrigerators because they consume expensive electricity. Even the school year is being shortened as districts across the nation are making hard choices amid a worsening recession as they deal with budget woes.

“If school districts think it’s bad now, it’s likely to get worse in the next couple of years,” said Michael Petrilli, vice president of programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington, who paints a grim portrait of the economy’s influence on education. He noted that as local revenues from property taxes continue to plummet, many districts likely will lose even more funding as foreclosures mount with increasing job losses.

Even as some hope that the economic stimulus will bring some relief, he said, children are the ones who ultimately lose as education bears a big hit from the downturn.

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“I think the truth of this is that this crisis has taken the focus away from educational improvements and raising achievement and put the focus on simply battening down the hatches and trying to make it through,” he said.

“I would be surprised to see the progress we’ve made in recent years continue, and I am not optimistic that this is a period where we will see strong gains in student achievement.”

In Florida’s Broward County, the school board, facing $160 million in budget cuts, this week debated killing several middle and high school sports programs, based on participation rates. In adjoining Dade County, two mothers outraged over state budget cuts went on a seven-day hunger strike, camping out across from Ronald Reagan Doral High School in January to protest that school system’s loss of music and art programs and curbs on student elective courses.

Pontiac, Mich., school district employees could all face layoffs as early as April.

The struggling city must react to shrinking enrollment - from 20,000 to about 7,000 - and loss of state funding along with a citywide financial emergency declared by Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm, a Democrat, amidst a $12 million deficit.

The school board voted to close eight schools and consolidate a high school in January. Employees would be hired back as needed under the emergency plan.

In Kansas, districts are pitching in to help cut budget shortfalls by instituting hiring freezes, limiting travel, charging for all-day kindergarten programs and monitoring energy use from computers and lights while adjusting school thermostats.

In Kentucky and Florida, school parent-teacher groups have considered pitching in more money to allow the schools to keep teacher aides in classrooms and to purchase equipment such as new computers. As money problems rise, districts across the nation have increasingly relied on these parent groups for more support. One principal in the beleaguered Detroit school district drew national attention after she called on parents to donate light bulbs and toilet paper to get them through the school year.

In Ohio, students from the Richmond Heights district may be the first in their state to eliminate all sports - even the money-making football and basketball - as they work against a more than quarter-million-dollar deficit. They join districts in Arizona and elsewhere that have considered eliminating sports as a quick way to shave money in a tight economy.

The Richmond Heights educators already have eliminated the bands. They are considering limiting bus routes, picking up only students through the eighth grade who live farther than two miles from school.

California schools, caught in a massive state budget mess, may cut their school year by five days. In Oregon, the school year could be cut by nearly two weeks.

The California move would save the state an estimated $1.1 billion. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, has criticized the cuts, which prompted some outraged parents to point out that he sends his children to private schools.

Private schools have not felt as much of the budget pangs as their public school counterparts. Enrollment is holding steady this year, said Myra McGovern, spokeswoman for the National Association of Independent Schools in Washington.

Parents usually apply a year in advance for enrollment, and next year’s trend is also looking good, she said. “It’s hard to believe, but many schools have reported an increase in families applying for admission,” said Ms. McGovern, whose association represents 1,400 schools and more than 583,000 students in the United States.

She said enrollment remained steady during previous recessions as families continued to fund their children’s schooling. Charitable giving also has been consistent even as endowments at many private schools have sunk in recent months.

Applications for financial aid are up, however, making it harder for independent schools to offer help to students who want to attend, she said.

As private schools weather the crisis, more public schools are feeling the pinch of increased demand for free and reduced-price lunches. Students and their families cannot afford to pay for school meals.

A School Nutrition Association survey of 130 school nutrition directors from 38 states found that 79 percent of districts showed a rise in free lunches served.

The number of students who paid full price for school lunches fell by 48 percent, the association said, noting that the uptick in demand reflected the increasingly dire economic problems facing U.S. families.

Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools in Washington, said budget cuts differ from state to state but most are having substantial effects on urban school districts.

“Over the last few years, urban districts have made substantial progress on academic achievement,” he said. “This makes it hard to maintain that momentum upward. The longer it continues, the harder it’s going to be for urban schools to sustain the improvements they have fought so hard to win.”

Mr. Casserly, whose organization represents some of the nation’s largest city districts, thinks the economic stimulus package should go a long way “to keeping the economy at bay for at least a while.”

“I think it will be enormously helpful,” he said, noting that the funding in the legislation for key and expensive programs like Title 1 and special education (IDEA) will allow districts to continue to fund these measures. “The amount of money is significant and should be of help to most of the major cities.”

Mr. Petrilli, from the Fordham Foundation, said districts have choices and could be making wiser cuts on personnel.

Many are reluctant to cut jobs first and protect some employees, including teachers who have not been effective. Rather than reducing overhead, electricity bills and art and music programs, schools should consider making changes in costly measures like class size, which add enormous costs to public education, he said.

“We spend 80 percent of school budgets on teachers and staff and benefits,” he said, but few districts have had “the guts to let ineffective teachers go.”

“There is a culture in some union rules that requires some of these decisions to be made by seniority, so there is this lack of flexibility,” he said. “So far, they want to cut things that are painful to children, but they aren’t so willing to cut things that are painful to adults.”