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Recession is the mother of invention in education

With the worst funding cuts behind them, many districts have adapted with ingenuity
Superintendent Joshua Starr of Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland crouches to speak with students in class. He is determined to support student programs during lean budget times.
Superintendent Joshua Starr of Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland crouches to speak with students in class. He is determined to support student programs during lean budget times.

Attendees at school budget workshops in Schenectady, N.Y., last spring got an assignment: Study a 15-page workbook describing the difficult choices facing their poor urban district, and then suggest spending cuts. Eliminate kindergarten? Fire elementary school art, music and gym teachers? Increase class size?

“I got an awful lot of ‘I don’t really know how to do this, but I know that I don’t want your job,’ ” says Laurence Spring, superintendent of the Schenectady City School District, which enrolls 10,000 students. “It generates an understanding of what it is that you’re really wrestling with.”

Five years after the Great Recession officially ended, many superintendents continue to grapple with a version of Spring’s dilemma: How to educate today’s students and prepare for tomorrow’s—with yesterday’s funding levels. The worst recession since the Great Depression lasted from December of 2007 to June of 2009, according to the federal government, and many superintendents are only now starting to glimpse limited financial relief.

District leaders have streamlined operations and sought new funding sources—sometimes, they acknowledge, taking actions that were overdue. The budget cuts have had real impacts on teachers and students. And although national figures suggest that a slow recovery is underway, school leaders are not sure whether tax-averse state legislatures will restore all the funding schools have lost.

“There’s an investment that needs to be made in the future,” says Joshua Starr, superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, which enrolls 154,000 students. “If we don’t give schools the ability to do that work, then we’re not going to give our kids what they deserve.”

Scalpels or machetes

For districts, recessionary budget pressures ranged from manageable to devastating, depending on local conditions and state policy choices. In rural Iowa, Superintendent Jason Ellingson of Collins-Maxwell Community District weathered a 2009-10 state aid cut of 10 percent by using reserves, freezing administrative salaries and shuffling teachers as enrollment declined.

In San Jose, Calif., when parent Wanna Kapoor learned that the Evergreen School District might close elementary school libraries to save money, she launched a local foundation that raised $100,000 to help keep them open.

Lagging indicators

Conventional wisdom is correct: The recession of 2007-09 was really that bad. “The recessions in the mid-’70s, early ’80s and early ’90s all had an impact on school budgets, but none of them were as devastating as this recession was,” says Michael Griffith of the Education Commission of the States.

In the 2007-08 fiscal year, states spent $238 billion of general-fund money on K12 education, but that fell to $219 billion two years later, says Brian Sigritz of the National Association of State Budget Officers. Revenue from local property taxes, the other major source of school funding, also declined between 2009 and 2012, according to the National League of Cities.

Census figures show education jobs fell by 324,000 between 2008 and 2013. Spending on education construction dropped by more than 25 percent—from $85 billion in April 2008 to $63 billion six years later.

For school districts, the pain arrived later than the federal government’s 2007-09 recession timetable suggests, because both income and property tax collections lag a year or two behind economic slowdowns. The 2009-10 and 2010-11 fiscal years were the worst for states, fiscal experts say.

Money from the $763 billion federal stimulus law helped cushion the blow even though the funding tapered off in the 2011-12 year, superintendents say.

“It plugged some holes for us and allowed us to keep from making deeper cuts,” says Stephen H. Guthrie, superintendent of Maryland’s 26,000-student Carroll County Public Schools. “The theory was that that would get us to when our ongoing revenue could pick back up. The problem is the ongoing revenue never picked back up for us.”

Thousands of miles away in Maryland, Stephen H. Guthrie, superintendent of the 26,000-student Carroll County Public Schools, realized that his district could cut 40 buses from its fleet if each vehicle made three runs a day, rather than two. The change saved $1.4 million, once the district overcame community resistance to adjusting the daily start times for elementary and high schools. Guthrie also cut clerical workers, food service workers and administrators; negotiated a near-freeze in teacher salaries; and reduced the district’s maintenance budget.

“We did things around the edges of the classroom,” he says.

But Schenectady suffered from the one-two punch of entrenched local poverty and painful state policy choices: New York’s legislature responded to the economic crisis by underfunding a school finance formula passed in response to an equity lawsuit, and then reduced school aid further to close a deficit.

Annual $10 million gaps between the cost of Schenectady’s programs and the money available to pay for them forced desperate measures: The district, where 80 percent of students are poor, made cuts in music, art, foreign languages, guidance counseling, remedial help and after-school programs. High school class sizes grew from 24 to 32.

“After several years of $10 million gaps, the fund balance completely goes away, services get whittled, and you start making choices about services that you really don’t feel good about,” says Spring, who has filed a federal civil rights complaint alleging that New York’s school finance cuts disproportionately affect non-white students.

Whether superintendents cut their budgets with a scalpel or a machete often depends upon whether their communities are wealthy enough to pick up the slack by raising local property taxes, says Michael Griffith of the Education Commission of the States (ECS).

In past recessions, “we saw greater separation between the haves and have-nots,” he says. “The expectations are that we’re seeing the same thing right now,” although data confirming that hunch has not yet been collected, he adds.

Merging to survive

Faced with budget challenges, districts sought new sources of funding. In upstate New York, where factory closings long ago hollowed out the local economy, Cosimo Tangorra Jr. last year merged his rural Ilion Central School District with neighboring Mohawk Central School District, forming the 2,300-student Central Valley School District.

Tangorra is now deputy commissioner of education for New York state, which gives a 10-year aid bump to districts that merge. The extra money staved off a threatened 20 percent cut in staff in Tangorra’s old district. With the new funds, Central Valley restored a high school business program, beefed up meager AP offerings, hired social workers and guidance counselors, and even relaunched the long-defunct marching band.

For now, students are better off, but Tangorra acknowledges that the short-term fix is no substitute for a fundamental overhaul in the funding of education in impoverished communities.

“If the inequities in the system don’t change, in 20 years we’ll be right back in the same position we were last year,” he says. “The only difference will be that we’ll have saved thousands of children from a substandard program in the interim.”

Smart cuts

Not every budget cut drew blood: Superintendents acknowledge that some of the streamlining—implementing blended learning, reducing administrative overhead and transitioning from textbooks to digital resources—was overdue.

In rural Missouri’s 760-student Sarcoxie R-II School District, Superintendent Kevin Goddard made the high school schedule more flexible by introducing an online Spanish program. He hired a teacher who spends two days a week meeting with language students for conversation practice and the rest of her time teaching the district’s growing population of English-language learners.

Goddard has also increased in-house and peer-to-peer professional development programs, and he cut back on PD that requires expensive travel. And when state money covers technology upgrades for vocational education, he rotates the older equipment into other district programs.

Struggling Schenectady compensated for cuts in high school teaching positions by revamping a theater course so that it would entitle students to English credit.

Before the recession, such smarts seemed less essential. In the early 2000s, Maryland poured money into rural/suburban Carroll County, and some programs were added without data to justify them.

“Spending money to satisfy the needs of your community is just as challenging as trying to cut, because when there is money to spend everybody has a reason to spend it,” Guthrie says.

Indeed, with the economy beginning to recover, local school officials sometimes face demands to launch new programs before they’ve finished filling up recession-era holes, says Griffith of ECS. States often allocate new money to categorical programs that may not match local priorities. New York state, for instance, announced a much-publicized preschool initiative—just as the Schenectady district began seriously considering scaling kindergarten back to half a day, or cutting it entirely.

Road to recovery?

Because tax collections lag behind economic trends, recession arrives late in school districts—and so does recovery, fiscal experts say. Although raw numbers suggest that nationwide school spending has returned to pre-recession levels, inflation-adjusted numbers paint a different picture: 35 states spent less per pupil in the 2013-14 school year than in 2007-08, and sometimes much less, according to the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP).

“It’s just a long slog for states to get back to the level of investments that they were at before the recession,” says CBPP research assistant Chris Mai.

Not everyone wants a return to pre-recession spending. Fiscally-conservative critics, noting that increases in school spending and staffing have far outpaced enrollment growth for decades, hope to see a fundamental rethinking of that trajectory.

“At the very least, we should question whether continuing to constantly increase spending is the way to improve academic outcome,” says Lindsey Burke of the conservative Heritage Foundation.

But superintendents looking to a future of Common Core-based testing and technological change worry that budgets won’t keep pace.

“While we’re maintaining our support for the kids who have the greatest needs, we are not doing enough to build capacity to really start doing things in new ways, whether it’s curriculum, whether it’s technology or professional development,” says Starr of Montgomery County.

Some state legislatures remain tax-averse. Missouri has enacted income tax cuts that will take effect if revenues increase, “so any kind of hope of the schools seeing more money per student—we’re not really optimistic about that,” says Goddard of Sarcoxie schools.

Still, past experience suggests that fears of a “new normal” of permanently lowered school-funding will prove unfounded.

“During the recession, people were saying, ‘You’re just going to have to get used to this; it’s less money for schools,’ ” says Griffith of ECS. “Really, if you look historically, that doesn’t play out. Yes, it was a very deep recession, but we’re recovering from it now. The recession didn’t fundamentally change the way education is provided in America.” DA

Deborah Yaffe is a freelance writer based in New Jersey.