For cash-strapped states and school districts, everything is on the table.
Budget items that once seemed immune to cuts — including bus service and American flags — have become fair game for officials forced to count every penny.
"The question they're asking is: What are the things that we absolutely must do? They try to preserve the core education programs, but many of the other things, they simply don't have the funds to do it," said Reginald Felton, assistant executive director for congressional relations at the National School Boards Association.
"They really are starting to look at every single thing," he said.
Nowhere is the crisis more apparent than in Washington state, where Gov. Chris Gregoire, a Democrat, has put the iconic yellow school bus on the chopping block. State officials, who are trying to close a $2 billion budget shortfall, estimate that they could save $220 million by having students find their own way to school.
Some, however, say the idea was floated merely to demonstrate the gravity of the problem.
David Hobson, executive director of the National School Transportation Association, said Mrs. Gregoire may have raised the issue "to get everybody's attention." Some legislators have questioned whether the move would violate the Washington Constitution, which requires the state to pay for basic education costs.
Mr. Hobson said no other state in the nation is openly discussing the elimination of bus service altogether, but some, including California and Colorado, have cut bus costs in recent years. Many districts are looking to outside contractors who can, in theory, provide the same transportation service without some of the overhead costs, Mr. Hobson said. Some schools have increased the required walking distance for students as a way to eliminate some bus routes and cut fuel costs.
Other school functions are also in danger. Some districts have cut janitorial service and cafeteria hours, and many have increased class sizes. More districts are asking families to pay for basic items such as toilet paper, napkins, hand sanitizer and paper plates and cups.
Dakota Ridge High School in Littleton, Colo., has instituted "course supply fees," such as $75 for advanced placement English literature, $40 for chemistry and $20 to help pay for textbooks in German classes, according to the National Education Association. Many other schools have implemented similar systems.
A district in New Jersey charges students $200 if they participate in an after-school club such as the jazz band, according to the NEA.
The dire state of school finances also was on display recently in Columbus, Ohio, where teachers were using pictures of the American flag or projecting images of the Stars and Stripes on the wall during the mandatory Pledge of Allegiance each morning.
After hearing about the situation, the local American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter donated 1,200 flags to the district, according to the Associated Press. The two groups spent nearly $10,000 to ensure that each classroom had a flag, the Associated Press reported.
Such partnerships, Mr. Felton said, will become increasingly important. With growing budget holes and dramatically reduced state subsidies, schools will look for assistance from civic groups, parents and nonprofits, he said.
"Three budget cycles ago, they weren't facing situations like this," Mr. Felton said. "They just suddenly don't have the revenue. [School officials] are saying, 'This is just what we must live with now.' Many of our smaller schools, they're just looking for whatever they can find to cut."
But the cuts, Mr. Felton said, also illustrate the growing inequality across the nation between affluent suburban school districts and their poorer counterparts in inner cities. Some financially capable districts are providing students with tablet computers or are constructing multimillion-dollar athletic facilities.
A few schools even give cash or other prizes to students just for showing up to class every day, a stark contrast to low-income districts struggling to keep the lights on.
"We're extremely worried" that the inequality will grow, Mr. Felton said. "What's the message to those students when they see that they don't even have supplies" in the classroom?
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