Education: Urban Schools Play an Anxious Numbers Game

Article excerpt

Byline: Pat Wingert

During the boom years of the 1990s, teachers and administrators at inner-city schools had reason to hope that better days were ahead. Prosperity meant that states and cities had more money to spend on the classroom. Education was a pet issue for dot-com millionaires, and private contributions paid for everything from new computers to college scholarships. But this winter hope is as scarce as good news about the economy. Many urban educators say a long recession could reverse most if not all the gains of the past decade. "Every day now, we're getting reports from cities saying they're having to do program cutbacks," said Michael Casserly, president of the Council of Great City Schools, a lobbying group for urban districts.

City schools are much more dependent on state sales- and income-tax revenues than suburban districts, which get most of their funds from relatively stable property taxes. That's why urban districts get hit first and hardest when the economy goes south. Since most cities are already struggling with underfunding and declining enrollments--as well as a disproportionate share of low-income and learning-disabled students--it doesn't take much to nudge them into crisis mode. And that means hiring freezes, layoffs, school closings and burgeoning class sizes. One recent survey found that 36 states--including California, Florida and Indiana--were struggling with recession-reduced revenues this winter, and many were cutting education funds as one way to make ends meet.

The timing is especially frustrating to urban educators who have waited a long time to see their fortunes rise, and have been encouraged by small victories in recent years. "No one ever claimed that an economic downturn was well timed, but we're in a particularly important and fragile state right now," says Casserly. "We're seeing upticks in academic performance and we are focusing our work much more closely on raising academic achievement, and we need resources to keep those trend lines going upward. Any erosion in our resources will make the job much more difficult."

The alarms began sounding early this fall when a number of states began telling city districts that the rosy projections they had used to draw up their budgets last spring were not materializing. …