Economy Takes Toll On Education Funding

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Fairfax County, Va., school buses i

Fairfax County, Va., is one of many school systems around the country facing budget cuts even as they grapple with sharply higher fuel prices. Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images
Fairfax County, Va., school buses

Fairfax County, Va., is one of many school systems around the country facing budget cuts even as they grapple with sharply higher fuel prices.

Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

Education budgets are getting hit by higher costs for fuel and food, and by lower tax revenues due to the real estate downturn. School budgets often take a slap when the economy sputters, as it's doing now. But some states are trying to protect schools from lousy economic conditions.

If you're an educator in a state like Michigan, you probably feel like someone keeps plunging your head into a bucket of ice water. During economic booms, you get to take a breath. But right now it's time for another dunking.

Twenty-two Michigan districts are facing deficits. Don Wotruba of the Michigan Association of School Boards says that as operating costs go up, there's only one way to cut staff.

"A lot of our younger teachers are the ones who get laid off, because they are the lowest on the pay scale as far as the union goes," he says. "And then those [teachers] leave the state to go work somewhere else. So we are having the problem of eating our young a little bit."

The irony is that Michigan legislators this year approved a small increase in per pupil spending, but it's not enough to keep up with the cost of education. Combine that with the fact that enrollment is declining rapidly in places like Detroit, and you can see why educators are running out of hair to pull out.

Universities Also Feel The Pinch

When it comes to higher education, the picture is equally bleak. Budget problems led the University of Nevada at Las Vegas to ax the all-time favorite instructor of a student named Hepi Mita. So, Mita held a going-away party for his teacher, complete with a call to action on Facebook.

"I just said the budget cuts suck," Mita says. "That actually started getting a lot of reaction" in the form of student protests against a looming 14 percent cut in funding, he says.

The university has already suffered cuts of about 7 percent over the past year, leading Provost Neal Smatresk to write an angry screed, much of it in all caps, calling the shortfall "a dagger in UNLV's heart."

Some States Boost School Funding

But the news isn't all bad for education funding around the country. Some states are trying to protect school budgets.

Pennsylvania, for example, is raising state funding by as much as 15 percent in some districts. And despite economic troubles in Arizona, school districts there got a 2 percent increase in state money. That's because voters passed an initiative in 2000 that requires funding to keep pace with inflation each year.

But that hasn't protected the Mesa Public Schools, the state's largest district, from having to consider school closures. Once again, the culprit is declining enrollment.

Educators are often reluctant to admit when they are doing well. Richard Miller, a vice president at the University of Wyoming, clearly does not want to crow about the generous allowance his school is getting, thanks to oil and gas revenues. Miller says the university received a 15 percent budget increase over the most recent two years.

Wyoming has been using its energy bonus to boost spending both on K-12 and higher education.

Miller says the university is trying to make sure the energy money will keep flowing, by training workers for energy fields.

"We have an enhanced oil recovery institute that's being funded now," he says. And the state is providing the university money to research clean-coal technology, he adds.

Alaska and North Dakota schools are seeing a similar boost. But educators in those states say that while they are benefiting from high energy prices, they want to avoid boom-and-bust funding for education.



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