School & District Management

Belt-Tightening Puts State Chiefs on Spot

By Michele McNeil — December 02, 2008 5 min read
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Even as education advocates nationwide fight to hold the line against district-level funding cuts, the state education departments responsible for overseeing K-12 policy are coming under the budget ax.

In state after state, ballooning deficits that already have forced layoffs and other belt-tightening across state governments are hitting an education bureaucracy charged with carrying out a growing list of state and federal mandates.

South Carolina Superintendent of Education Jim Rex last month had to put his entire staff on a mandatory, five-day furlough in hopes of saving 15 jobs. Colorado education commissioner Dwight D. Jones is coping with a hiring freeze just as his department implements a new mandate: regulating online education in the state.

Tennessee education chief Timothy K. Webb saw 59 members of his staff of about 1,000 take a voluntary buyout, and more staff cuts are likely. And if Delaware education secretary Valerie A. Woodruff wants to replace someone who’s irreplaceable—like the department’s front office secretary, who’s leaving this year—“I have to go beg,” she said.

Tumultuous Time

Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen works between sessions of a special budget hearing. Fifty-nine education department staffers took a voluntary buyout in a statewide effort led by Gov. Bredesen.

The budget pressure comes at a time of unusually high turnover among the country’s education chiefs, who gathered here in Austin Nov. 14-16 for the Council of Chief State School Officers’ annual policy forum.

At least 11 chiefs will be leaving in 2009, either because of election losses, retirements, or term limits. At the same time, the chiefs are guiding their departments through a fiscal crisis that has forced states to make current-year budget cuts of $5.5 billion, according to the Washington-based National Governors Association and the National Association of State Budget Officers. More than a dozen states have cut general aid to K-12 schools. (“Hard Times Hit Schools,” Aug. 27, 2008.)

Departments also are seeing their to-do lists grow. One example: Departments are working to build and fine-tune their data systems, so that they can, for instance, accurately count the number of graduates to meet new federal requirements that seek to require comparable graduation-rate data across all states.

Meanwhile, the number of schools failing to make adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act is climbing as states get closer to the 2014 deadline for all students to be proficient in mathematics and reading. This will inevitably place more demands on states that must monitor tutoring programs, school choice options, and school restructuring penalties prescribed by the law.

Colorado Commissioner Dwight Jones said his agency is under a hiring freeze.

Since 2001, when NCLB was passed and states had to turn to annual testing in grades 3-8, departments’ assessment budgets have grown exponentially while funding has not, said T. Kenneth James, Arkansas’ education commissioner. His state’s testing budget has quadrupled, from $5 million eight to 10 years ago to about $22 million now.

“The capacity issue is a serious one for every one of us,” Mr. James said.

The burdens aren’t just being added by the federal government; states also are piling on the responsibilities.

In Colorado, for example, the legislature last year gave the department of education new responsibility for regulating online education. The Maryland legislature earlier this year passed a law requiring the state education department and state board to come up with new rules to fight cyber-bullying in schools.

Illinois chief Christopher A. Koch has seen his agency whittled away, from 900 workers last decade to 477 now.

The list of state mandates has gotten so long that Mr. Rex, of South Carolina, said he plans to ask the legislature next year for more flexibility from mandates, such as some testing requirements beyond what nclb requires. Already this year, he had to cut 16 percent, or $9 million, out of his administrative budget. He accomplished these cuts by requiring all employees to take five days off without pay, eliminating some purchases, such as new school buses, and scaling back grants to at-risk schools.

Bigger Workloads

As with any state agency, the biggest chunk of an education department’s administrative budget is tied up in personnel, so when cuts are leveled, staffing suffers.

South Carolina Superintendent of Education Jim Rex had to put all his employees on a five-day furlough (leave without pay) in an effort to save 15 workers from layoffs.

In Tennessee earlier this year, Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen ordered agencies to offer voluntary buyouts to workers. At the Department of Education, 59 people took them, said Mr. Webb, the education commissioner. That’s out of a staff of 1,250. At the same time, the department is forging ahead with key initiatives, such as trying to help high schools with at-risk populations redesign their schools.

Mr. Webb said he’s bracing for another 3 percent cut from his budget.

“That just means the workload gets bigger for those left,” said Mr. Webb.

And it’s not as if the departments will see their budgets—or staffs—plumped back up again either, chiefs say.

Tennessee education chief Timothy K. Webb saw 59 members of his staff of about 1,000 take a voluntary buyout, and more staff cuts are likely.

“Once it’s cut, you don’t get it back,” said Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Suellen K. Reed, who is leaving office in January after deciding not to seek a fifth term. She and other agency heads were ordered to cut their budgets by 5 percent this year.

Texas Education Agency Commissioner Robert Scott said his agency was downsized by about 30 percent in 2003 and has stayed at that level since.

Illinois chief Christopher A. Koch, who has served in a variety of roles since coming to the department in 1994, has seen his agency whittled away, from 900 workers last decade to 477 now. No one in the agency is a content specialist, and the agency is criticized frequently for not having enough staff to monitor local districts.

Still down by several employees since the recession of the early 2000s, Delaware Secretary of Education Valerie Woodruff said she’s now under a hiring freeze: “If I want to hire somebody, I have to go beg.”

“We have a lot more responsibility and we struggle to get things done,” said Mr. Koch. In the 2006-07 school year, for example, the state became the last to compile and release its student test scores under NCLB, delaying the identification of struggling schools.

He said he has trouble recruiting data specialists to Springfield, when they have more options—and more earnings potential—in the private sector in Chicago.

If there are more budget cuts, Mr. Koch said, he’s going to have to resort to layoffs.

Ms. Woodruff of Delaware—who plans to leave next year when Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, a Democrat, steps down because of term limits—believes departments will be in a difficult position. Her office has lost five or fewer positions, but is under a hiring freeze ordered by the governor, and more cuts could be coming.

She said, “My belief is that departments across the country are going to have to say ‘We just can’t do more’.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 03, 2008 edition of Education Week as Belt-Tightening Puts State Chiefs on Spot


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