There's no question the raw numbers pouring out of President Bush's fiscal year 2007 budget look bleak for education. It cuts total education funding by 3.8 percent from FY 2006. It proposes to eliminate 42 education programs, including all funding for Perkins Loans, LEAP, education technology, gifted education, parent resource centers, elementary and secondary school counseling, school leadership, safe and drug-free schools state grants, arts in education, and the Close-Up Foundation. It flatlines funding for Title I, and no new funding here will result in cuts in services for disadvantaged students in more than half of all states, claims the Committee for Education Funding.
All told, the budget proposal represents the largest cuts in education since the Reagan Administration. When CEF takes inflation into account (projected at 2.4 percent), it says the cut equals more than $3.4 billion in real dollars in the real world.
"Increasing education funding has to be a critical component of the nation's strategy to respond to the challenge of our standard of living and economic security posed by the stunning growth in the talent pool of well-educated global competitors," says Edward Kealy, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based CEF. "The achievement gap will grow and the already unacceptable high school dropout rates for poor and minority students will soar as states and schools tighten graduation and achievement standards to meet new federal requirements."
Monte Moses, superintendent of Cherry Creek School District in Greenwood Village, Colo., knows exactly how this will come home to roost in his district. Keeping the status quo for Title I, for instance, spells trouble, "because the teachers will, in my opinion, deserve a pay raise and no new dollars means we have to reduce the programs to pay our teachers appropriately." Currently, he anticipates reducing teachers and teacher aides in those situations, which will mean one elementary school in particular that received an excellent rating by Colorado state standards and made AYP will be dropped.
Funding for English Language
Acquisition now in Cherry Creek barely scratches the surface in terms of what students need, Moses adds. "We're striving to prepare every student to be ready to go into higher education. And it's something of a hoax if we then don't have the financial assistance they need to make that a reality. It sends a bad message to raise the accountability for schools and then not have accountability for providing the resources needed to actually do the job," he says.
It's a similar story in the Pittsburgh Public Schools, where Ellen Estomin, CCC-SLP, serves as the senior program officer of programs for students with exceptionalities in that Pennsylvania district. She's working on a daily basis to see that this 18 percent of the school district's population reaches the state's proficiency guidelines. "As federal and state dollars diminish, it means the only thing you have left are grants, which we clearly go after, and local dollars. It makes it really difficult for us to be able to implement what is required and what is needed for our kids," Estomin reports.
The entire budget slide creates an atmosphere of instability, Kealy sums up, and that's simply no way to run an educational system. By his calculations, this country should be spending at least 5 percent of the total federal budget on education: a figure it has never come close to hitting.
Yet when the discussion turns practical how can this country balance education needs and pay down the deficit? these educators admit concrete remedies elude them. "I assume the debate will need to revolve around priorities," Moses offers.
In some corners, leaders like Steve Peha, president of Teaching That Makes Sense in Carrboro, N.C., an online curriculum publishing company, says he believes the battle lies in overhauling the Department of Education. "The main reason DOE is under-funded is that DOE cannot articulate a mission worth funding," he says flatly. "While any mission would be hard to get support for during a Republican administration, DOE won't succeed in the future with Democrats either if it can't show real results for its efforts."
Among Peha's practical suggestions for the DOE: provide research in articulating effective teaching and organizational practice for school-wide operation.
But why wait for Washington, D.C., to step up?, contends Tom Jandris, chairman and CEO of the Oak Park, Illinois-based Progress Education consulting firm. "Education is the last of the great unrestructured industries in America that doesn't understand its own economics," he says. For instance, he can pinpoint the billions of dollars allocated to Title I, but "the reality is that no school district has to report on whether any of that spending which, by the way, is the largest federal entitlement in the budget has made any positive or negative impact on the mission of the institution," he points out.
That disconnect spills over at the local level. Take, for example, this case in Progress Education's dossier: When Mayor Reardon in Los Angeles requested he help close the education achievement gaps at the beginning of this millennium, Jandris asked for a breakdown on the reform initiatives L.A. Unified had purchased in the last five years. After the dust cleared, the district had spent $2,400 per student more than 30 percent of its per-pupil allocation on reform initiatives it couldn't identify and had no idea whether they worked.
He finds similar stories in large and small districts from coast to coast. "Before we can answer a fundamental question like 'Do we need more funding?' the real answer is to insist educational leaders implement financial management systems that link spending patterns to the mission," says Jandris.
The good news: connecting cost accounting to student performance data to pull out the dollar-per-pupil per gain ratio on individual programs can be done in less than a year, so proactive districts can get a handle on their situation before the 2007 budget comes down the pike. Superintendents and school boards would then have the power to choose, say, a commercially available reform program aimed at increasing third-grade reading levels, that fits the budget rather than simply assuming they haven't enough money.
In Atlanta, Project Elevate, a partnership between Georgia's business community and SAT instructors, has jumped in to fill a gap. Students at participating public high schools in the Peach State may access test tutoring at no charge. Some districts have seen their average SAT scores jump 18 points, thanks to the corporate input. There's plenty of private business enthusiasm within communities for similar innovations, Jandris assures.
Meanwhile, the drumbeat on Congress' doors won't cease, either. "There's no reason that, in a year when all members of the House are up for election and many in the Senate, the people can't make it clear that cutting education is not the way to deal with the problems facing the nation, and not the way to balance a budget," says Kealy.
Julie Sturgeon is a contributing editor.