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Economy Improves, School Spending Continues to Fall - So What Gives?

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As the news headlines regarding the current U.S. economy continue to improve, there is one area that is still feeling the squeeze from the recession years: K-12 public school spending. A report this month from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that 34 states are contributing less funding on a per student basis than they did prior to the recession years. Since states are responsible for 44 percent of total education funding in the U.S., these dismal numbers mean a continued crack down on school budgets despite an improving economy.

In practical terms, these findings make sense. Property taxes pay much of public education costs and that revenue source is still low. Overall, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that districts collected just over 2 percent lower on property taxes ending in March than in the year before. Furthering the problem is the fact that while states have been cut throat in reducing spending, they have not been as vigilant in raising revenue sources through taxes and fees.

Loss of federal aid to states is also a problem. Even if a state does not need emergency federal funds for specific education needs, they must use school money to cover the cost of natural disasters or other projects that are no longer receiving aid from the federal government.

In extreme cases, like in Philadelphia and Chicago, individual districts have had to tap into other money and reserves to cover the basics of public education in their areas. Take a look at some of the most-telling numbers from the CBPP report on school spending:

• 14. This is the number of consecutive quarters state revenues have increased, despite stagnant or reduced school spending.

• 1.3. This is the percent that state funding fell for elementary and secondary schools from last school year.

• 20. This is the percent that Oklahoma and Alabama have sliced on student spending since the recession began in 2008.

• 13. This is the number of states, including Wisconsin and California, that have cut school spending budgets by more than 10 percent since the recession began.

• 15. This represents the number of states that have lower school spending budgets than they did one year ago.

• 72. This is the amount in dollars that New Mexico increased its per student spending for the current school year. It may seem like a bright spot, but barely dents the $960+ the state has cut per student in just the past five years alone.

• 20,100. This is the number of teaching jobs that were added in August - but that figure is still over 320,000 less than education jobs in 2008.

• 12. This is the percent that funding to low-income Title I schools has decreased since 2010, from $17 billion to $15 billion.

• 11. This is the percent that special education funding has been slashed since 2010, from $13.5 billion to $12 billion.

• 57. This is the amount of administrators that believe they will need to reduce class sizes this school year to offset budget cuts.

• 16. This is the number of states that cut pre-K educational per student funding in the 2011 - 2012 school year and 27 had to reduce enrollment numbers.

What do the numbers all mean?

The fact that state revenues are on the upswing but K-12 spending is still at recession-levels is disheartening. It seems that a reprioritization needs to take place in the 34 states that are still in the red when it comes to per student spending today as opposed to 2008. Less state spending on education certainly affects the learning experience but it also impacts other areas of the economy. Unemployed teachers and administrators have less to pump back into the economy and the viscous cycle of K-12 underfunding is furthered.

If we cannot fully fund our public schools how can we expect things like the achievement gap to close or high school graduation rates to rise? It was understandable that budgets had to be slashed when the bottom dropped out of the economy but now that we are in a more stable place, it is time to get back to funding what matters most: the education of our K-12 students.

Why do you think that per student spending is still falling?

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The opinions expressed in Education Futures: Emerging Trends in K-12 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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