While our national economy is showing many signs of recovery including higher job growth and lower unemployment, many state education budgets are still feeling the effects of the recent recession. A recent report by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities provided the following sobering statistics.
- At least 35 states provided less funding per student for the 2013-14 school year than they did before the recession hit. Fourteen of these states cut per-student funding by more than 10 percent. (These figures are in inflation-adjusted dollars and focus on the primary form of state aid to local schools.)
- At least 15 states are providing less funding per student to local school districts in this school year than they provided a year ago. This is despite the fact that most states are experiencing modest increases in tax revenues.
- Where funding has increased, it has generally not increased enough to make up for cuts in past years. For example, New Mexico is increasing school funding by $72 per pupil this year. But that is too small to offset the state’s $946 per-pupil cut over the previous five years.
And even with reduced state investments, districts are being asked to do more—add more pre-K rooms; increase the use of technology; provide more options for high school students; support more STEM activities; ready teachers and students for new state standards and assessments; and upgrade their physical plan to support learning in the information age.
There is, perhaps, a hint of a silver lining in this very gloomy economic scenario. That is, in the face of declining revenues, district leaders are becoming more thoughtful and strategic in how they are choosing to deploy their resources (people, time, and money). Through our work with districts across the country, we are seeing:
- A focus on trimming budgets where cuts can do the least harm rather than across the board cuts that were so common just a few years ago. For instance, some districts have been able to maintain investments in key reform strategies like a longer day or one-on-one technology while cutting other programs or activities.
- The use of data to understand what approaches are working and attempts to preserve investments in those areas. The idea of calculating and measuring “return on investments” in education has gotten a large boost during this era of do-more-with-less.
- More partnerships between districts and other city agencies and community organizations to bring additional resources into schools such as additional adult volunteers to support project-based learning or increase access to technology.
While some may argue that education budgets have become bloated over time, the reality is that districts can only do more with less for so long. Eventually, budget cuts will (and some argue already do) limit the ability of districts to provide students with the quality of education that we have come to expect and that is needed for continued national prosperity. If we believe that education is the driver of our economy and that investments to improve teaching and learning, in technology, and in the physical infrastructure of schools are necessary for the development of a competitive workforce, than the continued reduction in state education budgets should be a shared cause for concern.