States Facing Staffing Cuts, Heavier Load

By David J. Hoff — October 15, 2003 7 min read
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State education leaders are wondering how they’re going to do more with less.

Faced with huge cuts in their administrative budgets, many state education departments are struggling to complete the complicated new tasks required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, and they see little relief ahead.

“We’re expecting more than ever from an organization that in many states doesn’t have the capacity to do what we’re demanding of them,” said Ted Sanders, the president of the Education Commission of the States. “They’re going to do their level best with the hands they’ve been dealt, but those resources and that capacity may not be enough in the short term.”

In recent months, many states were forced to trim agency employees after their legislatures slashed administrative spending. While officials have tried to make cuts only in dispensable jobs, many states have had to curtail spending on data collection and assistance to struggling schools—two tasks that lie at the heart of the No Child Left Behind law.

Alabama, for example, recently canceled its contracts with consultants who helped low-performing schools. The state department of education also recalled the analysts running the financial operations in three districts with severe financial problems, according to Joseph B. Morton, Alabama’s deputy state schools superintendent.

The state cutbacks came after Alabama lawmakers pared the education department’s administrative budget by 15.9 percent in a series of cuts that also slashed textbook spending and reduced aid for teacher professional development. (“As Promised, Cuts Follow Failed Alabama Tax Vote,” Oct. 8, 2003.)

“It’s getting quite serious in terms of our ability to help schools in trouble,” Mr. Morton said in an interview. “We don’t have enough people to serve all of the schools that didn’t make [adequate yearly progress].”

In calculating adequate yearly progress, a crucial measurement required by the federal law, California released faulty data this past summer because, officials said, it lost researchers in a downsizing that reduced its education agency workforce by 13 percent.

The errors were “a direct result of having to do it quicker without the people to do it,” said Rick Miller, a spokesman for state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell.

Lacking Capacity

While states work on such high-profile tasks, they’re also required to complete other new and time-consuming chores under the 2001 federal law, which reauthorized the Title I program for disadvantaged students and the other programs under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Personnel Matters
State education agencies report they are taking on more challenges at the same time staffs are being cut, as noted in the examples below.
$$Alabama‘s recently passed state budget trims all of the consultants that had been assigned to help struggling schools. As part of spending cuts, the department of education will not fill its 51 current vacancies.
$$ Kentucky, in an effort to reduce spending, trimmed $4 million from its budget by eliminating regional education assistance centers--sites local schools often turned to for help in carrying out federal program mandates.
$$ California officials blame a 13 percent cut in the state education department’s workforce for the release earlier this year of faulty data on the yearly progress of local schools.
$$ In South Carolina, the research division of the state education department has been reduced from 17 to 13 positions as part of a downsizing that cost the agency 15 percent of its workforce.

For example, states must ensure that districts notify parents in low- performing Title I schools of their rights to school choice or supplemental services for their children, according to Patricia F. Sullivan, the deputy director for advocacy and strategic alliances for the Council of Chief State Officers, based in Washington.

States also must know whether districts are telling parents if a child is being taught by an uncertified teacher, and they need to certify that schools are obeying the law’s requirement that they do not have policies blocking “constitutionally protected” prayer.

While some state officials decry their new workload, advocates of the law suggest that states should be able to do the job with the increased administrative funding given to them when Congress raised Title I spending from $9.9 billion in fiscal 2001 to $12.3 billion shortly after it passed the No Child Left Behind Act.

“There is more federal money than ever before to help states and schools meet the requirements of the law,” said Daniel Langan, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education. “The federal resources are more than ample.”

“The federal government is doing a hell of a lot more for the states now than in the early years,” said William L. Taylor, a Washington-based civil rights lawyer who has tracked Title I since its inception in 1965. “A lot of the whining and bitching and moaning is coming from people who don’t like the accountability provisions, so they’re saying they don’t have the money to do this.”

But others said state education agencies don’t have the same amount of federal assistance as when the Elementary and Secondary Education Act had a grant program specifically dedicated to boosting the quantity and quality of their staffs, said Mr. Sanders of the ECS, which is a consortium of state policymakers based in Denver.

“They get the money to administer the act, not to greatly expand their capacity,” said Mr. Sanders, who served as the deputy U.S. secretary of education during the first Bush administration.

Helping Hands

The states’ biggest needs, Mr. Sanders said, are in helping schools that don’t make adequately yearly progress, or AYP, and in collecting the data needed to calculate that progress.

While helping failing schools is a priority under the No Child Left Behind Act—as well as in many state accountability systems—several states have targeted such efforts in budget cuts.

The Kentucky legislature passed a budget last spring that eliminated regional service centers that worked to help schools improve. That cut saved about $4 million this fiscal year.

At the same time, the legislature reined in administrative and travel costs, making it hard for headquarters employees to traverse the state to reach schools that had received help from the regional offices, said Lisa Y. Gross, the press secretary for the Kentucky Department of Education.

“Normally, we wouldn’t think twice” about traveling to help a school, Ms. Gross said. “Now we’ve been limited in doing that.”

Illinois’ regional school offices have suffered drastic personnel cuts due to state downsizing, said Bruce L. Dennison, the regional superintendent of schools for Bureau, Henry, and Stark counties northwest of Peoria. “It either means fewer clients being served or a lessening of the amount of services for all of the schools we’re expected to be available to,” he said.

While state education departments are struggling to help schools in need of improvement, they are also having a hard time completing their own work under the No Child Left Behind Act.

California isn’t the only state, for example, that has had trouble publishing the wealth of AYP data the law requires.

In South Carolina, the research division was reduced from 17 to 13 positions in a downsizing that cost the education department almost 15 percent of its workforce.

“It was a real struggle” to publish the AYP data, said Jim Foster, a spokesman for the South Carolina department. “It will be every year.”

The situation was made even worse when one of the department’s lead researchers resigned shortly before the AYP figures were published. The researcher left the department for a job “with considerably less stress and considerably more money,” Mr. Foster said.

In general, Mr. Sanders said, other states are in similar binds. “There are big gaps in a numbers of states’ data systems that make the current expectations difficult to meet,” he said.

Worst to Come?

State officials worry about their ability to provide all of the services required under the No Child Left Behind Act. But they also say they’re determined to get the job done, even without all the resources they need.

According to Mr. Sanders, most of them are saying, “‘It’s going to be hard, but we’re going to do it, and do it well.’”

But the job of balancing an increasing workload with decreasing resources may not get any easier soon. Mr. Morton, Alabama’s deputy superintendent, said his state’s budget forecasters are predicting another tough year or two. Other state officials are saying the same. “We can’t absorb other cuts, or we’ll be out of compliance,” he said.


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