Last year was not a good year for anyone’s wallet. But the recession is taking an extraordinary toll on school systems, as sweeping budgets cuts are enacted in cities and states nationwide. Experts say the budget crisis will be felt acutely this year and that it might only be the beginning.
Education budgets are closely tied to property taxes, leading some to predict more of the same in the years ahead.
“Education is accustomed to growing every year. Even leveling off is seen as a kind of death threat,” Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute educational think-tank, told AOL News. “What’s going on now is unprecedented in the last few decades.”
Many states and cities have already made drastic changes. California’s education budget was cut by $17 billion over the past two years and will be cut another $2.4 billion this year. As of Thursday, more than 23,500 pink slips had been handed out to school employees.
In November, the California regents voted to increase tuition at the state’s universities by 32 percent, leading to student protests on campuses across the state. Similar hikes under consideration in several other states led to a nationwide day of student protest March 4. In Georgia, the regents first considered a 77 percent tuition increase but dropped the proposed hike to 35 percent in early March.
In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie announced this week that next year’s budget would reduce total school aid by 7.4 percent. The $1.5 billion in federal stimulus money New Jersey received for this year’s budget will not be given out again next year, according to a letter to school administrators.
In Kansas City, Mo., and Detroit, the education departments are closing schools to address their financial problems — nearly half the schools in Kansas City and 44 in Detroit at the end of this school year, with more scheduled to close in the next two years.
Though the federal government has increased its contribution to education budgets around the country, the extra funds haven’t been enough to get many states out of the red. And because most education budgets get about half of their funding from property taxes, this particular economic downturn has been doubly hard on schools.
“The whole collapse of the last few years probably won’t filter though until 2013,” Frederick Hess, director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, told AOL News. “I think it’s much more likely that you’re gonna be looking at tight budgets into 2014 and beyond.”
Some experts believe the budget cuts could force school district reforms, making them more efficient and better-suited to serve students. Critics say that in the past, problems in the education system were fixed by throwing money at them, creating a bloated, inefficient system.
“One of the dirty little secrets that any public or private institution will tell you from the last 18 months is that it’s been a great opportunity to cut the dead weight,” Hess said.
According to this market-driven philosophy, there is a silver lining in the budget cuts. School districts can take advantage of the belt tightening by making good decisions to push through reforms. Kansas City, for example, will be closing 28 of its 61 schools, but enrollment in the schools has dropped off so much in the past decade that schools are only 48 percent full.
Other reforms could include using virtual classrooms so districts don’t have to hire teachers, increasing class sizes and looking at special education programs to see if their budgets are in line with their needs, according to Finn.
“If you were making smart cuts, the long-term implications could be good for your district,” Finn said. “If you make dumb cuts, the implication is academic performance is likely to go down.”
But these views are one side of a contentious debate. Many other experts, like Diane Ravitch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, expect the budget cuts to damage the education system.
“I think the budget cuts will devastate the schools at the same time that we expect them to raise standards and improve performance,” Ravitch wrote in an e-mail to AOL News. “We will see larger classes, fewer programs to engage students in the arts and physical education, fewer advanced courses.”
And reforms can be costly in and of themselves, says Luis Huerta, associate professor of education with the Teachers College at Columbia University.
“This is going to be a long-term negative impact to schools,” Huerta said. “And it will definitely have an effect on the services they can provide to students.”