Schools struggle to recover amid years of cuts

“It’s not just about the adults who lose their jobs. It’s about the students who are impacted because they’re no longer there,” said Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association.

The cutbacks are expected to have a disproportionate effect on low-income communities that cannot soften the blow of state cuts with aggressive fundraising or local school taxes. Advocates worry that could further widen the achievement gap between students of different races.

At least 21 states have proposed cutting K-12 education spending for the 2011-12 fiscal year, according to a March report by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. That’s in addition to at least 34 states that already have made cuts since the recession began.

“It’s going to be bad, and it’s going to get worse until the economy starts growing significantly,” said Tom Loveless, who heads the Brown Center on Education Policy. “State revenues across the country are in deep trouble. They’re way out of balance.”

Education spending is expected to hit bottom over the next two years as districts run out of $100 billion in federal stimulus aid for education and another $10 billion fund created to save teacher jobs last year, experts say.

The stimulus money saved about 368,000 school-related jobs during the 2009-10 school year, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

A survey late last year of 692 school administrators by the American Association of School Administrators found that 48 percent laid off employees last year, and 66 percent anticipate doing so this year.

With school budget cuts hitting less experienced teachers the hardest, lawmakers in several states are pushing to eliminate “last-hired, first fired” policies and allow districts to impose layoffs based on performance, not seniority.

Unions are fighting those moves. They say such changes would make it easier for districts to get rid of their highest paid teachers. They also question the methods used to determine which teachers are most effective.

Regardless of how the layoffs play out, educators say the depth of the school budget cuts will leave a mark on many school districts for years to come.

“The budget crisis has been a devastating blow to our district and to our students,” said Carl Toliver, superintendent of the Stockton Unified School District. “The whole culture of the district is changing right before our very eyes.”

Here is how public schools are faring in some of the largest states:

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