The Great Recession that began in late 2007 set in motion a growing budget crisis for American public schools that is far from over.
Around the country, states are cutting education spending to close gaping budget holes, while school districts are running out of federal stimulus money that had prevented widespread job losses over the past two years.
As budgets shrink and expenses grow, districts are laying off large numbers of teachers, raising class sizes, cutting electives such as music and art, scrapping summer school programs, and shortening the academic year.
The budget crisis hitting many of the nation’s public schools is taking a heavy toll in cities such as Stockton, Calif., a blue-collar port city that struggles even in good times.
Perched on the edge of central California’s delta, about an hour south of the state capital, the city of nearly 300,000 has had some of the highest home foreclosure and unemployment rates in a state that has ranked high in both categories.
The hard times have spread to the local schools. Last year, the district laid off 100 teachers, gutted its summer school program, and raised class sizes from 20 students to 30 in kindergarten through third grade.
Now, amid uncertainty over the state budget, the 37,000-student district is laying off nearly 500 teachers, counselors, custodians, and other employees. It also is preparing to pack as many as 36 students into elementary school classrooms.
Among the 275 pink-slipped Stockton teachers is Elizabeth Old, who has taught English at her alma mater, Franklin High School, since 2007. She’s worried about how her students, many of whom only read at an elementary-school level, will learn if class sizes keep growing.
“What’s going on is so antithetical to what works in education,” Old said. “I’m 27. I’ll be able to work somewhere eventually, but there are kids who are going to miss out on their basic education.”
Educators warn the school budget cuts are hurting the academic prospects of a generation of American students, even as experts say the U.S. needs to invest more in education as it faces rising competition from China, India, and other emerging economies.