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Recession, state and local budget deficits threaten public schools and equity in education

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By Jason Reece, Senior Researcher Kirwan Institute, Race-Talk contributor

Earlier this week, facing a $53 million dollar budget deficit, the City of Cleveland’s Public School district announced it would be losing nearly 10% of its entire staff, resulting in 800 layoffs and the loss of 545 teachers. Losing more than 800 staff will be devastating to a high need district (in which 100% of students are identified as being economically disadvantaged) and which is already identified as being on “academic watch” for meeting only 3 of 30 educational standards in 2008-2009.  These impending layoffs would also severely impede the district’s plan to use special “innovation” schools to promote academic achievement in the district.

This startling headline points to a troubling trend that looks to be a growing national problem. National surveys of school administrators found that nearly 70% of districts cut staff positions in this last school year and 90% expect to have layoffs next year. Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently stated that recent state and local budget deficits would probably result in 100,000 to 300,000 teacher layoffs.

To put that figure in perspective, consider that 300,000 teaching positions represent close to 9% of the total 3.4 million K-12 teaching jobs reported for the nation in 2008 by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Or that 300,000 public school teacher layoffs would represent half of the 608,000 jobs reported to be “supported or created” in the fourth quarter of 2009 by the nearly $780 billion dollar stimulus package.

These recent headlines are more frightening when you consider two looming financial challenges facing public schools. Most public schools derive a significant portion of tax revenue from local property taxes which are often based on property values. But, property values are not set in stone; the housing crisis has produced a drop in property values across the nation and resulted in dramatic devaluation in some markets.

The impact on local tax base is uncertain at this time, but we can reasonably speculate that decline in home values will eventually produce a severe drain on the local tax base. States also fund a significant portion of public education and looming deficits facing state government is sure to impact public school funding in the future. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that in 2010 States are facing $128 billion in budget deficits, another $260 billion in state budget deficits are expected to follow in 2011 and 2012.

Racial and social equity concerns are directly impacted by this challenge as it unfolds in schools across the nation. The longstanding achievement gap facing our most vulnerable and marginalized students is well documented and inequality in schools persists. Schools in the US have also rapidly re-segregated along lines of race and class, producing many schools and districts with large numbers of high needs students and less financial resources than more affluent school districts. Tragically, we are losing more teachers as the number of high needs students is on the rise, with the recession creating a generation of vulnerable kids, especially among communities and populations hit hardest by the recession. Instead of having more resources and skilled educators to target at this growing challenge, districts are forced to cut staff at a time of escalating need.

What is the solution to this impending crisis? In short, we need more federal funding to relieve the immediate crisis, especially targeting our highest-need schools or school districts like Cleveland, where cuts will be the sharpest and students will be the most vulnerable. In the long term, this challenge should cause us to seriously rethink our structurally inequitable and antiquated method for funding our public schools.

We also must consider if we are adequately targeting resources to those schools with the highest needs, schools whose children are at greatest risk and schools which are often at the greatest fiscal peril. If we fail to turn this challenge into an opportunity to address these longstanding problems, we risk losing progress for not only a whole generation of kids, but also endanger our nation’s ability to compete and excel in the hypercompetitive knowledge-based 21 st century global economy.

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Jason ReeceJason is a senior researcher at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race & Ethnicity at The Ohio State University and has worked for the Institute since 2003. He manages and directs the Opportunity Communities Initiative which includes all GIS, housing, community development, neighborhood revitalization and regional equity initiatives at the Institute. His work involves outreach, education, advocacy and policy research on issues related to fair housing/opportunity based housing, community development, neighborhood revitalization, regional equity and GIS. As director of the opportunity communities initiative, Jason manages more than 15 staff and has assisted community organizations, philanthropic organizations, public agencies and other non-profit or faith based organizations in more than twenty states. He recently organized the Institute's 2008 national convening on subprime lending, foreclosure and race.