Once 'Sacred,' School Aid Falls Prey to Budget Cuts, NCSL Report Finds
As states plan for the new fiscal year that begins July 1 for 46 of them, many states remain poised to cut K-12 education funding in order to come up with workable budgets, a report by the National Conference of State Legislatures says.
Nearly all states have struggled with deficits in their general funds for three years in a row, and many have tried to fill the gaps by cutting back on programs or raising taxes. But some legislatures have continued to underestimate the extent to which their revenues are declining, according to the Denver-based NCSL.
In "State Budget Update: April 2003," released last month, the group notes that with two months remaining before the end of most states' 2003 fiscal year, states face a total of $21.5 billion in budget shortfalls—the difference between anticipated spending and projected revenues. The report doesn't provide a total amount for all states' general-fund budgets, nor an average budget gap nationwide.
Such shortfalls are greatly complicating efforts to plan budgets for 2004. The report says that at least 21 states are considering proposals that would adversely affect precollegiate spending.
"These fiscal problems are so severe that even K-12 education, a program that has been held sacred and protected, is being affected," said Corina Eckl, a co-author of the NCSL report.
Alaska, California, and Oregon are the states with the bleakest outlooks, according to the report's indicators. At the end of April, Alaska had a budget shortfall of nearly $500 million, or 25 percent of its general-fund budget.
California had a gap of $8.2 billion, or 11 percent of its budget, and Oregon was short $1.1 billion, or 19 percent of its budget.
For other states, the shortfalls made up smaller proportions of the general-fund budgets, which in general account for about three-fourths of all state spending, according to Ms. Eckl.
States are looking at a variety of ways to trim spending on education in the upcoming fiscal year.
Alaska, for instance, may reduce funding for student transportation and early kindergarten, among other areas. Oregon is anticipating a salary freeze and is looking at changing its pension system. Kansas is proposing cutting the amount of state aid per pupil by $27—from $3,890 to $3,863 per student.
Ms. Eckl said that proposals are increasingly affecting core aspects of schooling.
"The early cuts that K-12 education experienced were along the lines of programming for at-risk youth, language programs, and after-school programs," she said. "It seems now that we are shifting to cutting per-pupil funding and halting increases in teachers' salaries."
As a sign of the times, she noted that while her organization typically publishes a report on state budgets twice a year, it has begun producing the reports every two months because members are so interested in what's happening in other states, given the dreary economic climate.
"We're exhausted," Ms. Eckl said. "We need the economy to turn around."
Vol. 22, Issue 34, Page 22