School & District Management

Belt-Tightening Puts State Chiefs on Spot

By Michele McNeil — December 02, 2008 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
Strategies for Incorporating SEL into Curriculum
Empower students to thrive. Learn how to integrate powerful social-emotional learning (SEL) strategies into the classroom.
Content provided by Be GLAD
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Leadership in Education: Building Collaborative Teams and Driving Innovation
Learn strategies to build strong teams, foster innovation, & drive student success.
Content provided by Follett Learning
School & District Management K-12 Essentials Forum Principals, Lead Stronger in the New School Year
Join this free virtual event for a deep dive on the skills and motivation you need to put your best foot forward in the new year.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management What the Research Says 5 Things Schools Can Do This Summer to Improve Student Attendance Next Year
Schools can get a jump on student attendance during the school year by using data, leveraging summer programs, and connecting with families.
6 min read
Julian Gresham, 12, left, works in a group to program a Bee-Bot while in their fifth grade summer school class Monday, June 14, 2021, at Goliad Elementary School. Bee-bots and are new to Ector County Independent School District and help to teach students basic programming skills like sequencing, estimation and problem-solving.
Julian Gresham, 12, left, works on a robotics programming activity in a 5th-grade summer school class June 14, 2021, at Goliad Elementary School in Ector County, Texas. Active summer programs may improve students' attendance during the school year.
Jacob Ford/Odessa American via AP
School & District Management Grad Rates Soared at a School Few Wanted to Attend. How It Happened
Leaders at this Florida high school have "learned to be flexible" to improve graduation rates.
8 min read
Student hanging on a tearing graduate cap tassel
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
School & District Management Opinion Don’t Just Listen to the Loudest Voices: Resources for Ed. Leaders
These resources can help school and district leaders communicate with their communities.
Jennifer Perry Cheatham & Jenny Portillo-Nacu
5 min read
A pair of hands type on a blank slate of keys that are either falling apart or coming together on a bed of sharpened pencils.  Leadership resources.
Raul Arias for Education Week
School & District Management The Harm of School Closures Can Last a Lifetime, New Research Shows
The short-term effects on students when their schools close have been well documented. New research examines the long-term impact.
5 min read
Desks and chairs are stacked in an empty classroom after the permanent closure of Queen of the Rosary Catholic Academy in Brooklyn borough of New York on Aug. 6, 2020.
Desks and chairs are stacked in an empty classroom after the permanent closure of Queen of the Rosary Catholic Academy in Brooklyn borough of New York on Aug. 6, 2020. A new study examines the long-term effects on students whose schools close.
Jessie Wardarski/AP