Although the economy has begun to rebound, K-12 education leaders say they are still facing serious budget shortfalls for the coming school year that threaten their ability to implement new technologies, raise the quality of instruction in their classrooms, and close achievement gaps among students, a new survey reveals.
Released April 8, Cliff Hanger: How America’s Public Schools Continue to Feel the Impact of the Economic Downturn,” the latest in a series of national surveys from the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), identifies a number of key challenges that are compounding an already grave situation.
Continued budget strains at the state and local levels will be exacerbated next year when the federal stimulus funding ends, the survey suggests—a phenomenon referred to as the “funding cliff.”
And though President Obama’s federal budget plan for fiscal year 2011 requests $4 billion more for education than the previous year, the administration is proposing to shift a greater percentage of federal dollars from formula-based grants to competitive grants—a move that school leaders fear will further squeeze their limited resources.
The results are likely to include more budget cuts, more job cuts, and fewer resources for programs and personnel, AASA warns—a scenario that doesn’t bode well for education technology or other school-reform initiatives.
“The economic downturn persists at the state and local levels, a reality that needs to be considered as Congress and the Obama administration move forward with both the federal budget process and the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act,” said Dan Domenech, AASA’s executive director. “Our members were clear in articulating their concern about the cessation of [stimulus] dollars, the proposed level funding for IDEA and Title I, and the significant shift to competitive grants within the federal education funding process.”
The survey, which polled 453 school administrators in March, found that the economic climate of school systems doesn’t reflect the recovery beginning to take hold in other sectors. In fact, school budget cuts will be noticeably more significant for 2010-11 than they were in the previous two years, the survey suggests.
Fifty-seven percent of respondents said they plan to delay technology purchases in 2010-11, up from 29 percent in 2009-10. Half of respondents said they plan to delay or eliminate instructional improvement strategies next year, up from 22 percent in 2009‐10.
Despite an influx of stimulus money, two-thirds of school leaders (68 percent) said they were forced to cut personnel in 2009-10—and 90 percent anticipate having to do so in 2010-11. Class sizes also are expected to balloon this fall: While only 9 percent of respondents said they increased class sizes in the 2008‐09 school year, that number grew to 26 percent in 2009‐10 and is expected to reach 62 percent for 2010‐11.
After holding steady at two percent for both 2008-09 and 2009-10, the percentage of respondents who are considering reducing operations to a four-day school week rose to 13 percent for the coming year. And more than a third of respondents (34 percent) are considering eliminating summer school this year, up from 8 percent in 2008-09 and 14 percent in 2009-10.
A significantly larger percentage of school leaders plan to reduce the number of elective courses they offer this fall. While only 16 percent reported this action in 2009-10, 51 percent said they will do this in 2010-11.
While school leaders said they understand the role of competitive grants in spurring education reform, they raised a number of concerns about the administration’s approach in their responses to the survey.
Because schools can’t count on receiving competitive grant dollars, respondents said, this funding mechanism leads to budget uncertainty and therefore is unlikely to lead to the kind of long-term innovation and reform that federal officials are hoping for. Also, applying for competitive grants requires schools to commit resources to pursue a revenue stream that might not come to fruition—and many school systems, especially small or rural ones, just don’t have the resources to do so.
“Financially strapped school districts across the nation were clear in reporting that they do not have the capacity to complete a competitive grant [application],” said AASA President Mark Bielang, superintendent in Paw Paw, Mich.