When Will School Budget Cuts Reach Critical Mass?

The political battles over balancing local, state and federal budgets are taking their toll on the nation's schools. While financial cuts are expected in times of hardship, many schools are being pushed into decisions that frustrate teachers, anger parents and alienate students. If the cuts continue, they may push some schools too far.

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How We Got Here

The economic crisis is almost half a decade old and there are few signs that a major turnaround is anywhere near. As recently discussed on the National Public Radio (NPR) program Talk of the Nation, perhaps nowhere is this crisis more apparent than in the public school system. As states face budget shortfalls, they look to save money wherever they can. The K-12 school system comprises a major chunk of state budgets, which makes it a prime target for cuts. Worsening the situation, each election brings more politicians who gain office on the contradictory promise of balancing budgets while not raising taxes.

While the burden of cuts from above is massive, the schools are not always free from blame. In more hospitable economic times, many school systems spent lavishly on projects that seem wildly misguided today. As noted on the NPR program, the city of Allen, Texas, spent $60 million on a football stadium for their students. Likewise, the Los Angeles Unified School District spent $578 million on the Robert Kennedy Community School complex, or $135,000 per student. In hindsight, the weight of the cuts might have been more manageable if pennies were pinched more effectively in times of surplus.

Pay to Play

The impact of school budget cuts can be alarming. Students throughout the country are facing the harsh reality that what was once a standard part of their education now costs a fee. For example, many schools have begun charging students to play sports or participate in other extracurricular activities. While these fees help support the programs, they can end up excluding students whose families can't afford them.

Having to pay to play is preferable to having programs cut altogether. In addition to sports and clubs, many schools are slashing elective courses. This threatens classes that develop creativity, such as music, drama and visual arts. Also on the chopping block are classes that teach practical skills, like welding, psychology and personal finance. These are often the classes that get kids excited about school. As schools are forced to retreat to the basics, such as math, science and social studies, they risk pushing away students.

The Strain on Teachers

In addition to the difficulties students are facing, teachers are straining under the weight of budget cuts. Less money leads to larger classes, which makes classroom management more of a challenge. Teachers can also devote less time to providing individualized attention, yet their workload outside of the classroom, grading tests and papers, is growing. The result is a higher burnout rate and low morale.

Further damaging morale, schools are reducing staff through attrition by not filling positions when a teacher chooses to leave. In order to avoid laying off teachers who want to stay, some schools use a tool that's been referred to as checkerboarding, in which a fourth grade teacher may get put in a second grade classroom not based on skill or interest, but because that's where the opening is. While tactics like checkerboarding may save jobs, they can seem like attempts to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic. After years of cuts, the school system is struggling to stay afloat.

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