Education Funding

State Budget Woes Threaten to Chill Education Initiatives

By Michele McNeil — July 24, 2008 3 min read
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While advisers for the two major parties’ presumptive presidential nominees are touting education reform ideas—from more virtual schools to expanded teacher recruitment—state legislators are grappling with harsh economic conditions that threaten to stifle such initiatives.

Campaign platforms and budget woes came head to head here this week at the National Conference of State Legislatures’ annual summer meeting, which provided a stage for education advisers to Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama. (See “Candidates’ K-12 Views Take Shape,” this issue.)

Former Arizona state schools chief Lisa Graham Keegan, representing Sen. McCain, and Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond, representing Sen. Obama, reinforced the differences between the candidates at a July 23 forum that drew a standing-room-only crowd of more than 150.

Ms. Keegan, speaking for Sen. McCain, an Arizona Republican, said student-performance data is the most crucial measure of how well teachers are doing. Ms. Darling-Hammond said that Sen. Obama, an Illinois Democrat, views test scores as just one of many measures.

“He is in favor of new approaches, developed with teachers,” Ms. Darling-Hammond said of Sen. Obama.

Legislators, concerned about the increased demands on states and school systems, asked pointedly during a question-and-answer session whether the candidates would send more federal dollars their way, especially to help fill classrooms with the highly qualified teachers required under the No Child Left Behind Act.

“One of the biggest complaints we’ve heard was that [NCLB] was underfunded,” said Maryland state Sen. Nancy J. King, a Democrat.

And the responses from the two advisers reinforced what’s perhaps one of the key differences between the presidential hopefuls.

While Ms. Darling-Hammond said Sen. Obama wants to spend an additional $18 billion a year for such purposes as prekindergarten and teacher recruitment, Ms. Keegan did not back away from Sen. McCain’s commitment to hold the line on federal spending and not increase education spending.

“Senator McCain is very mindful that the nation is in an economic crisis,” said Ms. Keegan. She pointed out that the federal government has increased spending on discretionary U.S. Department of Education programs nearly 50 percent over levels before the NCLB act became law in 2002.

Gloomy Fiscal Outlook

Less than two hours after the forum, Andrew Reschovsky, an economics professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a visiting fellow at the Cambridge, Mass.-based Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, warned legislators that states shouldn’t look to the federal government for financial help.

“I don’t think anyone thinks there’s going to be massive increases in federal funding for education,” said Mr. Reschovsky, who studies school finance and property-tax systems. “State education budgets are really going to be at risk.”

That was confirmed by a July 23 report by the NCSL showing that state education budgets are being battered in a fiscal year that is proving to be even worse than projected. Eleven states already have cut money for K-12 education, and others are also facing budget troubles.

Cumulative state budget gaps have grown to $40 billion in fiscal 2009, from $13 billion last fiscal year. So far, K-12 funding has been cut in Alabama, Delaware, Florida, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Virginia, the report says.

Higher education wasn’t spared, either: A dozen states cut funding to public colleges and universities.

The economic news from the states appears to be getting worse. In November of last year, seven states reported budget gaps; that number had doubled by April of this year and grown to 20 by June.

The causes are numerous, and often vary by state. Severe flooding and tornadoes have devastated Iowa and its budget, while a steep decline in gambling-related revenue is plaguing Nevada. Decline in the manufacturing sector is vexing 22 states, and the housing slump is affecting 17 states.

Many states have already dipped into rainy day-funds or other one-time sources to plug budget holes.

“I would suggest some of the more easy solutions have been taken,” said Corina Eckl, the fiscal-program director at the Denver-based NCSL. “The options become fewer and more difficult.”

Like consumers, she said, states are being squeezed by high energy and food costs. For example, fuel expenses for school buses are becoming a significant problem for states. (“Increasing Fuel Costs Hit Hard,” July 15, 2008)

In Maryland, budget problems mean that any plans to expand state-funded prekindergarten will likely go nowhere, said Sen. King.

“We’ll be lucky to hang on to what we have,” she said.

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A version of this article appeared in the July 30, 2008 edition of Education Week as State Budget Woes Threaten to Chill Education Initiatives

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