Hard Times

By Lonnie Harp — September 01, 1991 7 min read

Nearly two years ago, the state of Ohio published a pamphlet outlining an education reform package passed by the legislature. The booklet hailed the beginning of a new era, noting, “What will be different in the 1990s is that the pace of change will be accelerated like never before.”

“It is changing,” says Karen Gallagher, former director of the now-defunct Ohio Commission on Education Improvement, “but probably not the way whoever wrote that was thinking.”

Gallagher’s office, which was created to monitor the 1989 reforms, went out of business in June, a casualty of the 1991 fiscal year’s budget crunch. Far from hitting the fast lane, Ohio and many other states found themselves this past summer at the end of a budget year marked by cutbacks.

And, at a time when many states had expected school-improvement experiments to flourish, they instead face a new budget year clouded by widespread reports of larger classes, reduced honors and remedial programs, and growing local cynicism about policymakers’ commitment to costly school reform.

For the nation’s teaching force, the financial storm clouds mean only trouble. Over the past decade, teachers have grown accustomed to healthy salary increases, thanks to the long economic expansion and the reform movement; raising salaries and other moves to make teaching more attractive have been key strategies for improving schools. Now, however, with the recession exacting a heavy toll on state and local government budgets, teachers have small, if any, raises to look forward to.

What’s worse, teachers in many places are finding their jobs at risk. More layoff notices were sent out last spring than in a decade, according to Jewell Gould, director of research for the American Federation of Teachers. The union official estimates that between 5 percent and 10 percent of the nation’s teachers were given notice. In one experimental school in San Francisco, 31 out of 40 teachers were told their jobs were in jeopardy.

At press time, it was unclear how many teachers nationwide would actually be let go. Many districts are legally required to send advance notices to teachers whose jobs are at risk but do not, in the end, actually lay off all those who received the warnings.

More than 30 states face serious budget troubles. For some of the hardest hit, school reform projects have become expendable as lawmakers and governors instead focus on ways to pay for basic classroom services.

  • In Massachusetts, officials say budget cuts will gut the state’s 1985 school-improvement act, wiping out innovation grants for teachers, school-improvement councils, and a dropout-prevention program. The cuts also will drop early childhood reforms about 65 percent below their original appropriation. Other recent reforms, such as a grant program that frees exemplary teachers to help other districts, will also be trimmed to the bare bone.
  • Reforms passed six years ago in North Carolina—including dropout-prevention programs; art, music, and physical education classes for elementary schools; and class-size reductions—are all in jeopardy. Ohio’s tight budget is expected to break up a $90 million education-improvement fund included in the 1989 reforms. Officials say some of the fund’s major projects, including a remediation program for elementary students, will be canceled.
  • In New York, larger classes are seen as a certainty, and observers predict severe cuts in state training programs designed to help teachers and administrators shift to shared decisionmaking.

The vulnerability of reform efforts “is a concern in almost all the states,” says Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education. “There still is an intense interest in education improvement. It is just butting up against a terrible economic reality.”

A downturn in tax collections, combined with a growing demand for increased spending by states in such areas as health care and transportation, “is really putting pressure on people’s dreams of education improvement,” Wilhoit says.

In some states, legislatures have taken it upon themselves to trim specific reform programs from the state budget. In others, however, lawmakers have opted to cut the vast pool of money designated for basic local support, leaving district-level administrators to decide which programs will fall victim to hard times.

Educators’ pay has been a primary target in districts in Arizona, where state officials provided only a 1 percent increase in state aid, about 3 percentage points shy of what educators sought to maintain programs at last year’s levels. “Superintendents and others want to make sure children don’t suffer,” says Lee Whitehead, a spokesman for the Arizona Education Association. “But teachers are going to carry it on their backs.”

A $106 million—or an 8.2 percent—cut in basic state aid to Virginia districts has forced superintendents and school boards to consider dropping honors and prekindergarten programs, to delay textbook purchases, and to increase class size. Teacher pay increases have been eliminated statewide.

Similar reforms are also on the chopping block in Florida, where cuts range from layoffs to reductions in arts and innovative team-teaching programs. “You could call almost any district in Florida and get basically the same recording,” says John Gaines of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. “We’re certainly setting back what has been done over a number of years. We’re in a real bad way.”

The experiences of three Florida counties illustrate the widespread impact of the cuts.

  • In Collier County, school officials have given notice to 7.8 percent of the teaching force and cut 10 percent of the per-pupil allocation to local schools.
  • In rural Taylor County, school officials do not anticipate layoffs but say the district will not grant any raises or incremental salary increases. The system will cut afterschool travel, trim athletic schedules, and reroute some buses. An environmental-studies program for at-risk students is also in jeopardy.
  • Budgeting authority in Duval County is based at the school level. As a result, each principal faces cuts ranging from 1 percent to 3 percent, says Larry Zenke, superintendent of the Duval County schools. In addition, the district has laid off 3.3 percent of its teachers.

The cuts are painful and will deal a blow to many recently established programs, Zenke says, but they will not prove fatal. “As in any business, you can do some belt-tightening for one or two years,” he says. “If we are faced with another year in which there is an inability to fund the state’s growth, then the reform efforts that are still in place will have been totally lost.”

Massachusetts, where the economy and the state budget have been in trouble for three years, provides disturbing evidence of the long-term impact of cuts on reform efforts. In addition to dismantling the state’s 1985 education reforms, three years of reductions have put growing strains on local resources and created acrimony between educators and taxpayers throughout the state, according to Commissioner of Education Harold Raynolds Jr.

“Communities are divided and bitter,” Raynolds says. “Some of the bitterness is so bad that teachers are being insulted as they go to school.” Such hostility and apathy, he explains, is a byproduct of the severe cuts in the wake of reform. “You can move [the reform agenda] again, but it will take several years to crank it up, and people will be more cynical than they have ever been.”

Still, a number of analysts argue that the picture is not uniformly bleak. M. Donald Thomas, a senior partner with the Illinois-based consulting firm of Harold Webb and Associates, for example, believes the long-term prospects of sustaining education reform remain good. For one thing, Thomas says, lawsuits over school finance inequities are likely to force some states to enact education improvements.

“Everything has been put on hold, and the legislatures are not as eager as they were,” he says. “But they will pick up the ball again. There are too many factors pressing legislatures to provide adequate funding, and most legislators know they have to do something.” Others concur, saying that this year’s cuts simply reflect an effort to make it through a trying period, not an end to school improvements.

But even if the will for reform is still present, it may be some time before policymakers find an opportunity to act; state fiscal problems could continue well into the 1992 legislative sessions. Moreover, some suggest that education has gotten off easy given the severity of this year’s budget troubles.

“It may be quite a while before it turns around,” says Chris Pipho of the Education Commission of the States. “I guess it gets right down to whether you are an optimistic or pessimistic soul, but the pessimist would have an easier time getting support data right now. The bright spots are not very brightly lit.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1991 edition of Teacher as Hard Times