What School District Budget Cuts Mean For Students

As the new school year begins, many districts face tighter budgets and difficult choices about what programs to cut, which teachers to keep, and what school supplies to provide. Steve Ellis, principal of Fike High School in Wilson, N.C. and, Walt Gardner and Sean Cavanagh of Education Week, discuss the challenges and how they affect students and families.

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NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. For a couple of years, school administrators fended off the full effect of the Great Recession with federal stimulus funds, but in most places that money is gone, and the new school year ushers in some serious changes.

With just about everybody back in class now, we want to hear from principals, teachers, students and parents about the impact of budget cuts, what's happened and what's changed at your school. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation also at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, Smith magazine's latest six-word memoir. Send us your essay on work this Labor Day, but summarize your thoughts in six words, please. That email address is talk@npr.org. First, though, going back to school in tough economic times. We begin with Steve Ellis, principal of Fike High School in Wilson, North Carolina. He joins us now from his office there. Nice to have you with us. You're working on Labor Day?

STEVE ELLIS: Yeah, I am. It's a pleasure to be with you.

CONAN: It's not unheard of for school districts to face big budget cuts. I wonder how much was your budget cut and what kind of priorities did you have to re-establish.

ELLIS: Well, for the past three years, we've lost, at Fike, my school, around 20 positions. That's including clerical, teacher assistants and classroom teachers. So it's definitely been a big hit for us.

CONAN: And who makes the decision on who to cut?

ELLIS: Well, our central office, when they get funding from the state and the federal, what they do is they give us an allotment, and we basically take that allotment of teachers, clerical, and we build classes and class sizes with that.

CONAN: And how much has class size increased?

ELLIS: Well, class size here, we've probably - used to average around 22. We're up to about 30 in some classes. And you know, it's getting tough to manage.

CONAN: It's a little difficult to keep control of a room, sometimes, with 30 people in it.

ELLIS: Correct and I have to give my hats-off for the teachers. They've had to learn to deal with this. But I just don't know how much longer we can keep doing it.

CONAN: And any prospect that it's going to get any better next year?

ELLIS: To me it doesn't seem - you know, we had federal stimulus dollars this year that kind of bailed us out just a little bit. It kind of saved a few positions. But, you know, with the economy not turning or having an upswing, you know, it seems bleak to me. I don't know. I can't see anything getting better, and that's what the tough part is.

CONAN: What about extracurricular activities?

ELLIS: Well, this year, you know, we had to pay for students taking driver's ed. We were going to - we were going to go up on our - we were going to have an athletic fee for every child participating in sports. We didn't do that. But it's just a matter of time before we start doing those small things.

CONAN: And what programs in art and music - do you have those?

ELLIS: Yeah, you know, there are some classes we've cut. We had jazz band, we've had piano classes cut. Some of the elective courses that we normally hold, we had through the community colleges for acting, welding, those courses have been cut due to funding.

CONAN: There's a point at which you lose critical mass. Are you approaching that?

ELLIS: Right. You know, you end up - you can't just offer, especially at the high school, just math, science, social studies and reading. And, you know, when you're trying to prepare these kids to, you know, go into the work world or in college, what you're doing is you're cutting out those courses that they can be interested in.

The electives courses is really what keeps students in school, in my opinion. They can get math anywhere. But when it comes to pharmacy programs, psychology, music, you know, those are the classes we need to offer to keep them in school, and it just seems like those are the first ones being cut.

CONAN: And as you looked - what do you tell to teachers who all of a sudden have greatly increased workload?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ELLIS: Well, you know, all you can do is support them, and what you can try and do is use the money you have in ways that you just never used it before. We don't have textbook money anymore. So we make workbooks. You know, you try to get in a room, and you just tell them this is what's going to happen, where do we go from here, and if you're not on the same page, you know, you don't want to be fighting your teachers, and the best thing is to figure out what you're going to do with what you've got because they didn't send me less kids this year, and that's the problem.

You know, we're getting less funding, but I get more kids every day. So, you know, it's got to be a collaborative effort amongst all of us to try and figure out how we're going to work through these times.

CONAN: And obviously you get your budget, you're told what you can spend, and to some - to a large degree, I suppose, how to spend it. But this is ultimately up to the voters, don't you think?

ELLIS: Right, right, and you know, in times like this, I know the economy is tough, but you know, your best resources are students, and it kind of concerns me when, you know, it's not a political issue for me. It's about kids. And when you put them in the middle of something like this, you know, that's our future, and that's what always concerns me, and that's not a Democrat or a Republican issue. You know, it's an American issue.

And, you know, when you're nickel-and-diming the education these kids are receiving, I think down the road, you know, you're going to pay for that. And just - it gets frustrating as a principal because I know I can't do but so much more, and the teachers can't either.

And I know the parents are getting concerned, and you know, it's time for someone to stand up.

CONAN: Well, is it time for you to say wait a minute, if you cut me anymore, I just can't do it?

ELLIS: Well, and being in this position, you know, us principals and teachers will never do that. We're in it for the kids, and I know I'm not going anywhere. And, you know, I think our voice in the legislature as principals and as teachers needs to be heard, and we need to be louder, but of course we're never going to stop the work. This is what we're here for, and it's about kids, and you know, although we can get more political, we do need a little help with parents. They can help us out. But I'm assuming now I'm in here for the long haul.

CONAN: Steve Ellis, thanks very much, and Happy Labor Day.

ELLIS: Thank you, you take care.

CONAN: Steve Ellis, principal at Fike High school in Wilson, North Carolina. We want to hear, in tough budgetary times, what's changed at your school. We want to hear from teachers, students, principals and parents, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Angie's(ph) on the line calling us from Tulsa.

ANGIE: Hi, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

ANGIE: I just wanted to mention what's going on with my kids' school district. They - I heard that they needed to slash couple of millions from the budget, and one of the changes is that they are - rather than - all the bus routes have been changed so that instead of the buses coming through the neighborhoods as much as they used to, they now all come to a central point. So the kids don't catch the bus closer, you know, or right in front of their homes anymore.

They - in my kids' case, they catch it about three blocks away or four, so that the kids all go to a centralized point. I guess the buses just - they've shortened the routes, and they don't come so far into the neighborhoods anymore.

CONAN: Consolidate the bus routes to save a few dollars on gas and maybe a few bus drivers and buses.

ANGIE: Yeah.

CONAN: All right, Angie, thanks very much for the call.

ANGIE: Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate it. Joining us now here in Studio 3A is Sean Cavanagh, state policy reporter for Education Week. He's been covering budget issues facing school districts across the country. Nice of you to be with us today.

SEAN CAVANAGH: Good to be here.

CONAN: And what you heard from Principal Ellis and what you just heard from Angie, is that typical?

CAVANAGH: Oh yeah, that rings very true around the country. I think you'll hear a lot of school district officials, principals, superintendents, saying that. To put this in context, going into the last budget year, more than 40 states were facing budget shortfalls. You also had a new crop of governors and this wave election in state legislatures where you had a lot of state officials pledging not to raise taxes.

So that left one option when you're trying to balance your budget, and that's cut, and K-12 education makes up such a big chunk of state budgets that as a result of that, we're seeing these cuts in local school districts everywhere.

CONAN: And cuts to teachers, fewer teachers, fewer administrators, fewer - all across the board.

CAVANAGH: Yeah, we're seeing outright layoffs. We're also seeing cuts through attrition, which I think as many of your listeners would agree, and probably as your principal would agree, are often just as harmful as outright layoffs, where you've got - an employee retires, and that position is simply not filled.

You've also got cuts to before-school and after-school programs, summer school programs. You've got cuts to remedial education for struggling learners and for gifted learners. So it's - the budget ax is - has fallen really hard on districts, and it's struck in many different ways.

CONAN: As you've pointed out, some of this is due to - well, the ending in most places of the stimulus money. You quoted in a recent piece Ron Tamalis, I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly, the Pennsylvania secretary of education, who said wait a minute, we've known these cuts were coming. People ought to have prepared for this. They knew this was going to happen.

CAVANAGH: Well, and school districts were told that the end would come of the stimulus funding and to budget for that. But what you're seeing is the stimulus was making up for this humongous loss in state revenue, and at the same time local property tax revenue was drying up.

And so school districts are being hit from so many different angles that the stimulus money really did provide a lifeline for a couple years. You know, while the Obama administration has pumped in some other emergency aid to schools, that money will eventually go away too. So school districts - you know, it looks bleak for the next few years, at least.

CONAN: Let's see if we get a caller in on the conversation. This is Sundia(ph), Sundia in Jacksonville.

SUNDIA: Hello.

CONAN: Hi, go ahead, please.

SUNDIA: I did work in the schools for several years, and it is surprise - it's not very surprising that we are in this situation. I'm sad to see that many students will be going through this shortage of money and like not having sports and other art programs. But when there was money, I saw a lot of wastage. We wasted a lot of money. So no wonder we are in this situation.

CONAN: And for example, what was money wasted on, in your opinion?

SUNDIA: A lot of supplies just thrown away, a lot of waste, lot of waste. I mean...

CONAN: That money, we would not be in this situation today if that money had been squirreled away for a rainy day?

SUNDIA: Right. Like many of us, you know, when we have money, we don't think that we should save it and put it away and not just keep spending, because I'm sure when there are budgets, people think, oh, if I don't spend it, I will not get it next year. So I better spend it now. And then we just overbudget ourselves, and we just hire more people, and then when there's no money, we just keep firing people. So it's just, you know, a sad situation.

CONAN: Sean Cavanagh, Sundia's got a point. Budgets, well, there's territoriality in budget spending as well.

CAVANAGH: Yeah, and the sentiment, you know, she's voicing, you'll hear that from parents, from elected officials as well, that school spending for decades has risen pretty much steadily, and a lot of that money was poured into trying to keep class sizes low, but now schools, like everyone else, are trying to - having to make hard choices about where to spend funds.

CONAN: We're talking about what's changed at your school. Give us a call - principals, teachers, students, parents, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. More with Sean Cavanagh of Education Week. In a few minutes, well, there could be a silver lining amidst all of this black cloud. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Back-to-school season always brings its share of challenges. Starting again in this tough economy can exasperate those difficulties. With just about everybody back in class now, we want to hear from principals, teachers, students and parents about the impact of budget cuts. What's changed at your school? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And yes, to avoid the emailers, I did misspeak. I mean to exacerbate, not exasperate. So please hold off on sending those emails now. Our guest is Sean Cavanagh, state policy reporter for Education Week, who's been covering these policy issues.

Interesting, we talked earlier with Steve Ellis, the principal at a high school in Wilson, North Carolina. He said he'd considered charging students who wanted to play athletics. You wrote a story about one school that had to make that decision, $250 if you wanted to play football, for example.

CAVANAGH: That's right, and that is not uncommon. It was $250 per student, per athlete. So if you're a multi-sport athlete, more importantly if you're a parent who's trying to pay for the multi-sport athlete, you may have to make some very hard decisions. And we hear of that all the time.

Oftentimes, the costs aren't $250 per student, but even $50, $100 per student, that can be a heavy burden for a lot of families.

CONAN: And the boosters at school organize and try to ameliorate some of this, but some kids aren't going to be able to play.

CAVANAGH: That's absolutely right. That's the worry among the coaches, among the administrators, among parents. Booster are rallying to try to do things like arrange transportation. They're holding fundraisers. They always hold fundraisers, but now they're doubling their efforts.

So there's a limit to what they can do. And pretty much everyone in that community is saying we're reaching our limit. So now we're at the point where many of the burdens that school districts are facing are going to be passed on to households.

CONAN: Let's go next to Meredith(ph), Meredith with us from San Jose.

MEREDITH: Hi, yes. I'm a high school English teacher, and I teach freshmen and sophomores. And some of the changes that I've seen this year are because we lost our summer school program a couple years ago. So in my freshman and sophomore English classes, I'm seeing class sizes of 37 and 38, which, you know, I'm a - this is my 10th year teaching. So I can deal with that pretty well, but I imagine new teachers would have a problem with class size management.

So not only am I seeing an increase in class size because we've lost teachers in my department but also because there's no other choice for remediation for these students who have failed their freshman and sophomore classes. I'm seeing juniors and seniors in my classes this year.

CONAN: So the knock-on effect of dropping summer school is you get a lot of kids who are repeating class.

MEREDITH: Exactly, and they have to do it during the regular school year. So it's sort of a - we're getting hit doubly by the lack of summer school and by the loss of teachers affecting class size.

CONAN: And Meredith, how does this affect morale?

MEREDITH: It's not good for morale, I can tell you that, especially since total, I have 176 students. And if you can imagine being an English teacher and assigning one essay, even if that essay is only two pages long, that's an enormous amount of extra work for me, and it's just - it's not good for working conditions. It's not good for morale.

CONAN: Meredith, thanks very much for the call, good luck.

MEREDITH: Thank you.

CONAN: And Sean Cavanagh, class size, that's a controversial subject. There are those who argue that the best teachers can handle larger classes.

CAVANAGH: Sure, our secretary of education, Arne Duncan, among them. You know, Mr. Duncan has said that - he hasn't talked about class sizes going to 37 students per class, but he said that class sizes could rise modestly if you've got a very qualified teacher leading those classes, someone who can manage a class effectively, who knows content. And there are a lot of people who agree with him on that point.

I - you know, it's funny. Most of the class size increases that I've been hearing of are more modest than what the caller was presenting, but we do hear cases of class sizes just spiking because of loss of personnel, and it's a challenge for teachers, and it's a cumulative effect, as she mentions.

CONAN: You also wrote another piece saying yes, senior teachers, but so many teachers are being reshuffled. If you taught second grade last year, you may be teaching third grade because that's where the hole is, and you could be shuffled around because nobody wants to fire anybody.

CAVANAGH: That's right. The - one school superintendent in Pennsylvania referred to this process as checkerboarding, where you've got an opening that you can't fill. So you end up moving someone from your staff, say a counselor, to fill a teaching position. The counselor becomes the third grade teacher. The third grade teacher is asked to become the sixth grade teacher. The sixth grade teacher may be asked to become a principal. And these folks may be certified for those positions, but, you know, someone may not have taught in five or six years.

Someone, you know, a teacher may not be that familiar, that comfortable with the content they're being asked to teach. So people are being stretched in different districts in a lot of different ways.

CONAN: Joining us now is Will Gardner, who taught for 28 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District. He's now a blogger and columnist for Education Week, and that's also where Sean Cavanagh works. He joins us now from studios at Marketplace in Los Angeles. Nice to have you with us today on TALK OF THE NATION.

WALT GARDNER: My pleasure.

CONAN: And amidst all these dark clouds, you suggest there may be a silver lining.

GARDNER: Well, it depends how you define a silver lining. What bothers me the most is that the pain that we're all talking about is not being felt equally in all districts. Affluent districts have a distinct advantage over the poor districts.

I recall up in Orinda, California, up in the northern part of the state, parents set up a private foundation to provide instruction that the state could not provide. I doubt that poorer districts had parents who were able to do this.

I think on a larger scale, however, the issue as I see it is that public education is a right to be enjoyed by all, not a commodity for sale. This was the ruling in 1984 in the California Supreme Court in a case called Hartzell v. Conell, and it says that this right to a public education is not contingent upon the financial health of local school districts. I think we have to face that reality.

CONAN: Face the reality that there are - how do you define, then, what is a minimal or minimally acceptable, that way, public education?

GARDNER: Well, let's put it this way. Public schools have not been entirely blameless. Here in the Los Angeles Unified School District, where I taught for 28 years, we have an egregious example. The L.A. Unified, this nation's second-largest, is broke, and yet it spent $578 million on the Robert Kennedy Community School's complex.

This came out to be the most expensive school ever constructed in the U.S. It came out to $135,000 per student. Now, that's hard to defend at any time, particularly now. So when I say a silver lining, I think that the public has to understand that they have to support schools, but at the same time, they have to understand that teachers are not miracle workers, that schools at best only have students in the classroom, I believe it's 1,150 waking hours, as opposed to 4,700 waking hours in their home or in the neighborhood.

As a result, it's very difficult to ask teachers and schools to produce the kind of results they want under the best of conditions, certainly not now. So maybe the best thing is to say look, what are we asking the schools to do? What are we asking teachers to do? And how realistic is this expectation?

CONAN: Walt Gardner, now a blogger for Education Week, with us from Marketplace Productions in Los Angeles. Here with us in Studio 3A in Washington is Sean Cavanagh, also with Education Week, where he's state policy reporter. 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Kelly's(ph) on the line from Lakeville in Minnesota.

KELLY: Hi, I'm a parent of two children, one in sixth grade, one in second grade. And I - I don't know what the answer is, but I know, you know, we get money from the government, and in Lakeville, you know, it's allocated to just certain projects. And, like, we did some outrageous football fields and underground sprinklers, and then this year we had to lay off 100 full-time teachers.

And like your caller was saying that, you know, one teacher that was teaching kindergarten one year is now going to be teaching eighth grade science. You know, it's just - I think, you know, that money that we're getting from the government, it can't be just allocated for certain projects. I think - and I believe, I think the parents need to have more say in this. I think...

CONAN: Kelly, I'm going to interrupt you because your phone line is...

KELLY: ...government can't be just allocated for certain projects, I think. And I believe - I think the parents need to have more say in this. I think...

CONAN: Kelly, I'm going to interrupt you because your phone line is really annoying.

SUNDIA: Oh, I'm sorry.

CONAN: It's nothing to do with your call or your content. It had to do with your phone line. I think we got your point, though, and I'm going to let you go. But appreciate - thanks very much for the phone call.

KELLY: OK.

CONAN: And, Walt Gardner, rather, that football field with the sprinklers, is that the kind of thing you're talking about?

GARDNER: Absolutely. Here's another example. Allen, Texas, which is a very affluent district, convinced its voters to pass a bond referendum recently to spend $60 million on a football stadium. Well, I know, I love football. I know in Texas they love it more than I do. But in dire times, these - this money should be spent in the classroom, not on the athletic fields - a question of priorities. And I think what the caller just mentioned is a perfect example. Who's managing the money? In fact, I think the best way of looking at it is it's not how much money we provide schools. It's how well the money is spent.

CONAN: And, Sean Cavanagh, obviously, as schools' belts are tightening everywhere, this is increasingly important issue.

CAVANAGH: Yeah. I imagine, if there is a silver lining to some of this, we're going to be seeing more scrutiny over budgets, more taxpayer accountability at the state and local level. And back to one point that Walt was making earlier about equity; one of the concerns during these tough budget times is when you're cutting state aid to school districts around a state, it's traditionally, in many states, the more tax-poor districts, without a lot of property tax value that are most dependent on state aid. And so, they're often the ones to suffer the most. So there are a lot of serious equity concerns, you know, during a recession, post-recession period like this one for school districts.

CONAN: Let's get...

GARDNER: Yeah - can I just jump in on this? I agree with you completely on this. New Jersey's stance is a good example. Its state constitution states that every student should receive, quote, "a thorough and efficient," end quote, education. Yet, when Governor Christie vetoed a bill that would have raised revenues by raising taxes on the state's richest, the state supreme court said that this violated the previous Abbott v. Burke series of decisions from previous years. And he appointed - ordered an appointment of a special master to determine if the cuts by the state violated these obligations. I think you're absolutely right about that.

CONAN: We're talking with Walt Gardner of Education Week. He's a blogger there; former teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Also with us, also from Education Week, Sean Cavanagh. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And we'll go to Ash, Ash with us from Gainesville.

ASH: Yes, thank you for taking my call. My suggestion was, on a previous caller mentioned the fact that schools are spending the resources in a way that could have been used wisely. I'm a math teacher myself. I see textbooks. And the textbooks, basically, are - that have been used for a couple of years and perfectly fine, no damage, and the textbooks' companies would definitely generate money by changing a couple of pages. And the basic instruction, the method of instruction has not changed, but new books have been bought by the school district or the school itself. And that what I see in my experience is just complete waste of money, which could have been used for hiring more teachers and assistants. And that is another problem, what I see at least from my vantage point. And...

CONAN: Sean Cavanagh, some talk about the school book industrial complex, the problem with some of the spending at schools. We also hear, when are these going to go online? When are these going to be available to kids on their computers? You don't have to buy the books?

CAVANAGH: Well, there is a great movement towards online digital textbooks. The other point I would make to the caller is we're having this movement towards common academic standards, shared academic standards across states. And what a lot of people think - what some people hope is that this would bring more uniformity in textbooks. And we won't have this state-by-state purchasing, district-by-district purchasing of textbooks. And we'll have a more streamlined, efficient way of going about things.

CONAN: Let's go to Joy, and Joy is with us from Live Oak in Florida.

JOY: Hello.

CONAN: Hi.

JOY: I know times are really tough. We're in a rural community, and we're one of the poorer counties in the state. But I think that our school superintendent has done remarkably well with keeping the best interest of the children at heart. All of our schools have a full-time registered nurse, because we have so little health care for children. We've kept sports. We do have smaller class sizes. We have had a lot of cuts. And I'm not sure exactly how they've managed everything, but it's not showing up in classrooms. And my - I have a 15-year-old and a 9-year-old, and I've been really pleased. Sure, we don't, you know, necessarily have across-the-board A-grade schools, but we have teachers who care. We have before-school programs and breakfasts and lunches. And I've been surprisingly happy with what we've had. I know that our - the person who is our financial person for the county - was taken to the state offices to show how we've done so well and how they've cut things.

CONAN: I think they might want to take them to Washington or her to Washington too. That's a great story.

JOY: They just do well, and they care about the children. And I think that that's been the most important thing. We still have music in schools.

CONAN: Walt Gardner, it's nice to hear a good story.

GARDNER: Very much so. You know, you mentioned before about a silver lining - there's another thing that I think is going to be - comes under this rubric. Public schools vary, of course, but so many of these large urban districts are top-heavy with administrators. These administrators make huge amounts of salary compared to the classroom teachers. Catholic schools have been able to provide a quality education for many reasons, one of which is that they are very, very slim at the top when it comes to administrators. But when you get to a large - these large urban districts, L.A. Unified, New York, Chicago and so forth, you're going to find administrators, sub-administrators, their assistants - this is an area that must be scrutinized and must be cut back.

CONAN: Joy, thanks very much for the call, and we appreciate hearing some good news today. Joy, calling us from Live Oak in Florida. Our thanks to Walt Gardner at Education Week, and thanks as well to Sean Cavanagh. Walt Gardner, with us from Los Angeles, and Sean Cavanagh, with us here in Studio 3A. Up next, in honor of Labor Day, your six-word memoirs about work. Some of the emails we've gotten so far: work for all that ails you; It's great to be retired. What's your contribution? 800-989-8255. Stay with us. TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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