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School Districts Brace for Cuts as Fiscal Crisis Looms

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The New York Times, November 15th, 2012
During the campaign, both President Obama and Mitt Romney repeatedly extolled the value of schools and teachers. Mr. Romney, in their first debate last month, even vowed, “I’m not going to cut education funding.”
But if his fellow Republicans in Congress and Mr. Obama cannot agree on a resolution for the country’s looming debt crisis, the automatic budget cuts and tax increases that will kick in next year could spawn another round of belt-tightening at public schools already battered by the recession and its aftermath.If the government is unable to come to a resolution, federal education programs for elementary and high schools would lose a little over $2 billion — or close to 8 percent of the current budget — starting next fall, according to the Office of Management and Budget and the Education Department.

School districts around the country are bracing for cutbacks. In Boston, programs for English language learners and students at risk of failing a grade would be curtailed. In Cleveland, where the district has already lopped 50 minutes off the school day and limited art and music, officials fear they would have to curtail a literary program for struggling fourth and fifth graders, and lay off more classroom teachers. Miami-Dade, which has so far avoided pink slips for teachers, would probably start issuing them.

While federal funding generally represents about 10 percent of public school budgets, schools have already lost millions of dollars in state money. According to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal-leaning research and advocacy group, 26 states cut funding this school year, and two-thirds of states are providing less money for public education than they did five years ago. It may be several years before state coffers recover enough to restore funding to previous levels.

At the same time, schools have been hobbled as another important source of financing — property tax collections — has plunged after the housing crisis.

While declines in state and local funding affect most public schools, cuts in federal funding would jeopardize services at schools that serve the neediest children. Federal funding for elementary and secondary education is directed primarily at low-income students as well as English language learners and those with special education needs.

“It in essence widens the gaps between the haves and have-nots,” said Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. “The wealthy suburban communities that receive very little federal funding — it’s not going to have much impact on them.”

But at urban school districts where a majority of the students are poor, a decline in federal funding, he said, “is going to be catastrophic over the reductions they’ve had over the last four years.”

At the Orchard Gardens K-8 Pilot School in Roxbury, Mass., a neighborhood of Boston, Andrew Bott, the principal, fears that the work the school has accomplished in recent years could be stalled. The school, which was one of the city’s worst performing a few years ago, has used federal funds to add an hour to the school day, establish academies during breaks in the school year for students who fall behind and bring in extra help for struggling readers. As a result, Mr. Bott said, test scores have improved. “Money isn’t always the answer,” he said. “But when you have a good plan and invest it well, it makes all the difference.”

Conservatives have argued that federal education spending has more than doubled in the last four decades, while test scores have not risen much. “I think the evidence is pretty overwhelming that federal involvement in K-12 education has not resulted in meaningful academic gains,” said Neal McCluskey, associate director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute, a libertarian policy group.

But with schools being asked to raise students to higher standards, evaluate teachers more rigorously and compete internationally, education advocates say funding cuts are devastating.

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