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Economy Takes Toll On Education Funding

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Economy Takes Toll On Education Funding


Economy Takes Toll On Education Funding

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Schools often take a hit when the economy suffers. In our next story, we hear how some states are trying to protect their education budgets from the current economic downturn. NPR's Larry Abramson reports.

LARRY ABRAMSON: 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 trim - cut staff.

MONTAGNE: A lot of our younger teaches are the ones that get laid off, because they're the lowest on the pay scale as far as the union goes. And then those students leave the state to go work somewhere else. So I think we're having a problem with eating our young a little bit.

ABRAMSON: 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.

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

MONTAGNE: I just said the budget cuts suck. It was, you know, part of the description of the event. And that actually started getting a lot of reaction.

ABRAMSON: In the form of student protests against a looming 14 percent cut in funding. The University of Nevada has already suffered about 7 percent in cuts over the past year, leading Provost Neal Smatresk to write an angry screed, much of it in all caps, calling the shortfall, quote, "A dagger in UNLV's heart."

Now, we could go down a list of states like Florida and California facing torture by education cuts, but it's so much more refreshing to hear about states that are trying to protect school budgets, like Pennsylvania, which 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 bump in state money. Chuck Essigs of the State Association of School Business Officials says that's because voters there passed an initiative in the year 2000.

MONTAGNE: Which requires the legislature annually to fund operational expenses in schools with a 2 percent increase or inflation, whichever's less.

ABRAMSON: But that hasn't protected the Mesa public schools, the largest district in the state, from having to consider school closures. Once again, the culprit is declining enrollment. Truth is, educators are often reluctant to admit when they are doing well. Richard Miller of the University of Wyoming clearly does not want to crow about the generous allowance his school is getting thanks to oil and gas revenues.

MONTAGNE: Oh, on a biannual basis, probably 15 percent.

ABRAMSON: In recent years, Wyoming has been using its energy bonus to boost spending, both on K through 12 and higher ed. Richard Millers says the university is trying to make sure that energy money will keep flowing by training workers for energy fields.

MONTAGNE: We have an Enhanced Oil Recovery Institute that's being funded now. There are clean coal research monies that the state's providing us.

ABRAMSON: Same deal in Alaska and North Dakota. Educators in these states say while they are benefiting from higher energy prices, they want to avoid boom-and-bust funding when it comes to education.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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