Nation's Schools Suffer Wounds from Recession

Article excerpt

Hard times are reaching into the American classroom.

Just when politicians are calling for a revival in American education, the recession is leaving principals and teachers across the country with less money for more students.

The toll is uneven, and not all the cuts are dire. But reports are somber across the economic spectrum. Schools in the hardest-hit areas have no art, no music, no librarians and no counselors. Teachers comb rummage sales and attics for supplies. School districts stop running buses and hold Bingo nights to pay for sports programs.

"A year ago we received the nation's education goals and I was told to post them on my wall," said Jane Gaskell, principal of Pembroke Hill Elementary School in Pembroke, N.H., referring to the six ambitious education goals President Bush has said he wants achieved by the year 2000.

"We're not even getting close. I read my education journals and hear about these innovative programs and I laugh and say, `The band's playing on.' "

There are no up-to-date national figures on public school spending cuts, but interviews with experts on school finance, national education groups and principals of 27 schools in 13 states suggest that this year is bad and next year will be worse.

The latest estimates available for spending on elementary and secondary education from the National Center on Education Statistics project a 5.8 percent increase by federal, state and local governments for the school year that began this fall.

But the notion of an increase may be misleading because these estimates were made as the recession was just unfolding. In many cases, rising school enrollments, local reluctance to raise taxes and state fiscal problems have meant that schools actually have less money than before.

So far this year, 30 states have reported budget deficits or revenue shortfalls, according to Anthony Hutchison, a fiscal analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures. States and towns pay 94 percent of all education costs.

Although surveys show that most state legislatures had planned to increase spending on education this school year, Hutchison said he expected the recession would pare those increases or force actual cuts in many cases before the end of this year.

Rising school enrollments have meant that a small increase can actually be a cut. Even more than states, cities and towns appear to be cutting education spending as voters worried about their own futures reject tax increases.

The worst-off schools are in the Northeast and California, according to Steven D. Gold, director for the Center for the Study of the States at the Rockefeller Institute of Government in Albany, N.Y.

In a survey conducted this December by the National Association of Elementary School Principals, 74 percent of the 650 principals who responded reported budget cuts. Forty percent of the principals said teachers had been let go.

Nearly half the principals cut back music, art, and programs for gifted children; 80 percent have eliminated field trips.

Critics have long contended that money's role in education is overrated.

It is clear that some school bureaucracies absorb too much money before it reaches the classroom; the National Center for Education Statistics has found that nearly 40 percent of money for education does not go directly to the classroom but is spent on administration, guidance counselors, transportation and other support services.

But it is equally clear that in many places, schools are hobbled. In rural Hancock County in eastern Tennessee, schools depend on fund raisers to buy all school supplies.

In Belington, W. Va., teachers run booths at the local fair to raise money so they can attend workshops. In Los Angeles, the Aragon Avenue School had to cut playground hours in a neighborhood where children have nowhere else to play. …