The Recession Is Over, So Why Are School Districts Still Slashing Budgets?

Students are protesting ‘unfair and unequitable’ resources, and teachers in some cities may go on strike.
Charlestown High School students participated in a walkout to protest public school funding cuts in Boston on March 7. (Photo: Dina Rudick/‘The Boston Globe’ via Getty Images)
Mar 14, 2016· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

Arguing that education budget cuts have whittled away their futures, more than 1,000 Boston public school students took to the streets to protest last week. In Chicago, there’s trouble on the horizon—if forced to take unpaid leave to balance the books, the city’s public school teachers say it’s “all but certain” they’ll go on strike in April. In Detroit, meanwhile, the entire school system may shut down entirely by April 8 if the Michigan legislature can’t reach a deal to restructure the system’s finances.

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The ugly headlines from three of the nation’s largest cities are symptoms of a much greater, more widespread problem, experts say. At a time when big-city public school responsibilities are growing, school budget coffers hard hit by the recession are running dry, and state-level lawmakers don’t seem to have the political will to fill them up.

The students hurt the most are the ones who can afford it least: poor black and Latino students who go to school in districts that were struggling to begin with.

“We have a huge problem in this country with public school financing,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center. The problem becomes more acute, he said, with standardized-test-score mandates and bipartisan calls to overhaul failing schools.

“You can reform these schools till the cows come home,” Sciarra said. “But at the end of the day, the foundation is not there” to help kids build academic achievement.

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According to experts, the root of the problem in cities like Boston and Chicago, generally speaking, is how school districts are funded. Though the federal government kicks in a percentage, public school systems get most of their money from state revenue streams: property taxes, sales taxes, and lottery profits. School boards, elected officials, or voters set the tax rate for funding schools.

Studies have shown, however, that the lack of a uniform system leads to disparities not only in how much money is raised but also in how lawmakers in state capitals handle the money. Sciarra and other analysts point to California, whose premier school system of the 1970s and ’80s fell on hard times when a homeowners’ revolt against property taxes drained millions of dollars from the system.

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Meanwhile, even with tax cuts, the property wealth of a community can mean the difference between first-rate schools with new buildings and engaged teachers and ones with crumbling classrooms where no one wants to teach, experts say.

That leaves cities like Detroit, with hardscrabble neighborhoods and a vanishing tax base, hard-pressed to keep pace financially—particularly with budget requirements such as quality pay and benefits for teachers and staff, an increasing number of students who need help learning English, and aging facilities that demand constant maintenance.

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“Like most issues in education, it’s really, really complicated and really, really political,” said Maria Ferguson, executive director of the Center on Education Policy, an independent public education advocacy group.

Another factor is the impact of the Great Recession. During the economic downturn, public school budgets took big hits to make ends meet, Ferguson explained. But now that the recession is over, lawmakers in state legislatures are loath to hike taxes and risk voter backlash.

As a result, “states have been slow to restore the cuts to K–12 education triggered by the 2007 downturn, and school funding remains below pre-recession levels in many states,” according to the Education Law Center’s 2015 National Report Card on school funding.

“It’s clear and unequivocal that states and school districts across the country are cheating their futures by failing to invest in their own children,” Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, wrote on the ELC website about the National Report Card. “It’s both a moral and economic imperative that our nation dramatically change the way it distributes educational resources to advance true equity in America’s classrooms.”

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While most voters say they support public education, “if you’re living in a community that has a lot of older people, they don’t have as much sympathy for funding schools as they did when they were young parents,” Ferguson said.

Even when school budgets are relatively flush, public school funding in most states “continues to be unfair and inequitable,” shortchanging poor kids “out of the educational opportunities they need to succeed,” she said.

Crises like the ones in Detroit, Boston, and Chicago may get resolved but only in the short term and usually through cutting services or teacher pay, analysts say. But the problem of school funding—and poor districts getting far less than they need—will linger.