Recession could result in deep school staff layoffs, larger class sizes

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 21, 2010; A02

From coast to coast, public schools face the threat of tens of thousands of layoffs this year in a fiscal crunch likely to result in larger class sizes and fewer programs to help students in need.

Reports of deep staffing and service cuts are emerging in several states, including California, Illinois and New Jersey, as school officials say that finances have been stretched to the breaking point. The Washington area is not immune.

Prince George's County schools plan to cut 800 positions, many through layoffs, in the third straight difficult budget for a system that is battling to improve uneven academic performance. That will mean an average of 29 students a class, up from 27, in the coming school year.

"Our cuts have been at every level of this organization," Prince George's Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said. "We've been trying to keep the cuts away from the classroom as best we can. But there is no place else."

School budgets in Montgomery and Fairfax counties, among others in the region, are also under the knife. D.C. school funding is so tight that officials enlisted private foundations to help fund provisions of a proposed teachers contract.

Last week, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) proposed a $23 billion bailout to help states avert education layoffs, a potential sequel to last year's economic stimulus law. The Democratic-led Congress will consider the proposal this spring along with spending measures related to the economy and the war in Afghanistan.

The Obama administration is urging relief for states. Education Secretary Arne Duncan estimated that education layoffs could total from 100,000 to 300,000 unless Congress acts.

"It is brutal out there, really scary," Duncan told reporters on Capitol Hill. "This is a real emergency. What we're trying to avert is an education catastrophe."

Duncan said President Obama's campaign to shake up perennially low-achieving schools and promote effective teaching could be undermined if class sizes rise, summer school is cut and other education programs are jettisoned.

"We must act soon," said Harkin, chairman of two Senate panels that oversee education policy and spending. He noted that states are starting to issue layoff notices. "This is not something we can fix in August. We have to fix it now."

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a former U.S. education secretary, said he worried about where the government would find $23 billion for a bailout in a time of growing federal budget deficits. "I wonder from whose schoolchildren we are going to borrow this money, because we have a looming debt crisis in this country and we'll need to debate this," he said. "We all want to help our children and our schools, but that is a deep concern."

In December, the House approved a spending bill of similar scope to help save education jobs. That measure stalled in the Senate.

The stimulus law enacted in February 2009 provided nearly $100 billion for education, much of it to help states avoid layoffs after the deepest economic recession in decades. But that source of aid will soon run out. Even though the economy appears to be on the mend, state and local tax revenue in many places is stagnant or sagging. As a result, educators face what experts call a "funding cliff."

This month, the American Association of School Administrators reported that two-thirds of members surveyed cut positions this school year and 90 percent expect to do so in the coming year. The survey of 453 administrators also found that 62 percent anticipated raising class size, 34 percent were considering cancellation of summer school and 13 percent were weighing the possibility of a four-day school week.

The National Education Association, a teachers union with 3.2 million members, counts 26,000 teachers in jeopardy of layoffs in California, 20,000 in Illinois, 13,000 in New York, 8,000 in Michigan and 6,000 in New Jersey.

Even when jobs are saved there is a steep price. Los Angeles officials decided to avert about 2,000 layoffs by cutting five days from the academic calendar. But the city's school workforce is hemorrhaging nonetheless.

"You name it -- teachers, administrators, counselors, school nurses, cafeteria workers, support personnel are part of an exodus forced by financial realities," Ramon C. Cortines, Los Angeles schools superintendent, told senators at an April 14 appropriations hearing.

California's fiscal situation is so bleak that actress Megan Fox was moved to produce a 3-minute 49-second video to dramatize the school budget troubles and urge the public to pressure Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) for help. In the Internet video, a clueless Fox wanders into a classroom with several dozen students. Some are literally climbing the walls. They assume Fox will be their instructor.

"Wait, you guys don't have a teacher?" she asks.

"She was laid off," one girl replies.

"And then they combined art class with another teacher's class," another says.

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