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How Will Schools Budget Cuts Affect Parents?

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Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 22, 2009; 1:00 PM

As local budgets tighten, what kind of cuts are area schools likely to make? And will parents be expected to pick up the costs? Send your questions about how the economy is impacting education to Post staff writer Michael Birnbaum.

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Birnbaum was online Thursday, Jan. 22 at 1 p.m. ET.

The transcript follows.

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Michael Birnbaum: Hi all -- thanks very much for joining this chat about school budgets in tough economic times. I look forward to answering your questions about the impact, both large and small, on education in the coming few years.

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Silver Spring, Md.: In Montgomery County, the school system agreed to drop most class fees next year. Apparently the county has told schools that they'll get some money from the county to make up for it, but the county's not going to have any money to spare next year either. Realistically, what's the impact on schools and classes if the county can't make up the difference?

Michael Birnbaum: Montgomery's reaction to the tight fiscal times was interesting; parents have complained that class and supply fees were too high and not standardized, and that they hurt parents who were also suffering in the current economic climate.

It's difficult to speak of specific impacts on programs given that budgets aren't quite set yet, but Montgomery County is hurting like many other places; they're predicting a $450 million shortfall in fiscal year 2010.

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Loudoun County: In light of Del. Poisson's proposed legislation to eliminate local government duplication regarding school services, making them another department of local government, why is Loudoun continuing to host a duplicate school system? Why are small expensive rural schools not higher on the cut list, above things like summer school and special ed? Many more parents will be affected by cuts that will take place long before a very few parents lose their children's private school experience.

Michael Birnbaum: I confess I'm not totally familiar with Delegate David Poisson's proposal to allow local governing bodies to oversee schools rather than school boards, but I do think that the four small, western Loudoun County schools that you reference are real targets for cuts. Again, though, it's not clear what will make it into the final budget and the cutback proposals.

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Virginia: What impact will fees for sports and other extracurricular activities have on low-income households?

Michael Birnbaum: Thanks for your question; I think it's a great point, and one I haven't really seen the school systems address. Obviously a flat fee hits lower-income households harder than those with higher incomes. I should point out that none of these budgets has actually been approved by Boards of Supervisors and county governments, and some of the details of the proposals are still a little unclear. But in the past, state funding has been available to partially subsidize fees for AP tests for students from low-income families, for example. Sports and parking fees, probably not.

It's interesting, also, as referenced above, that Montgomery County is taking a totally different approach, and actually cutting fees.

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Fairfax, Va.: Parents seem to expect the sun, moon and stars, and are not willing to pay extra for anything. The county, on the other hand, cuts everything, does not cut back parts of a sport, or ask parents to pay part. There has to be a middle ground so that sports can continue. Do we need the "fluff" that goes with some of these "sports"? Do we need cheerleading squads, pep bands, long distance traveling to far flung lands?

Michael Birnbaum: There are probably ways to cut costs in many different programs -- though I suspect the bands and cheerleading squads would be unhappy with your suggestion! One way to offset the costs of the sports programs would be to charge fees -- Loudoun County, for example, has a proposal on the table to charge between $50 and $250 per student, per sport:

Schools' Reaction To Tight Times Seen in Fee Rules (The Washington Post, Jan. 8, 2009)

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Anonymous: Curiously, a D.C. council member was essentially gloating over the D.C. budget and the budget issues in suburban counties recently. With the fall in DCPS enrollment, what challenges are D.C. or DCPS facing?

Michael Birnbaum: The District does seem better-positioned than many other areas in terms of budgets, though of course it's hurting too.

But the ongoing challenges in the DC Public Schools are very different from those of some of the Maryland and Virginia systems. Those systems tend to be starting from a better place in terms of school infrastructure, test scores, etc. Urban and suburban schools can be pretty hard to compare.

No doubt it was a bit of a disappointment that the Obamas chose private over public school!

But of course they did the same in Chicago.

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McLean, Va.: I'm really pleased with all the school cuts. Too long we've had a system where lower-income children and minority children are artificially pumped up to compete with the well-positioned kids. They get to places like Harvard, soak up financial aid dollars, and fail. Now, kids with the personal resources to maximize their talents are getting the respect that their FULL TUITION payments deserve, as the extra spending to help these poorer kids just doesn't exist anymore.

Michael Birnbaum: I think you're missing the point of public education.

For the record, though endowments at places like Harvard and Yale have been hit, they haven't cut any of their quite generous financial aid. Private colleges and universities with smaller endowments are the ones in trouble, as is public higher education.

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No Child: Hey Michael, does No Child Left Behind have any effect on budgets/budget cuts? As the economy tanks, are resources being poured into kids passing those darn tests rather than on teacher training, actual learning, etc.? Will the Obama Administration do anything to get rid of No Child?

Michael Birnbaum: The No Child Left Behind Act definitely has an effect on budgets -- it mandates fairly expensive testing without providing much in the way of funding to pay for it. And resources certainly go toward preparing students for the tests.

Federal education funding in the United States tends to be quite low. One thing the Obama administration has talked about doing is using some of the stimulus package to support public education; they have not talked about repealing NCLB.

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So...: What kinds of cuts ARE schools expected to make? Do you see differences in projections across different districts? It seems like more well off areas, like Bethesda/Chevy Chase/Potomac and Arlington might be in better shape then the exburbs where homes are all going into foreclosure and taxpayers are fleeing in the dark of night.

Michael Birnbaum: Several school systems, including Prince George's and Loudoun, have talked about closing schools. A lot of superintendents are increasing class sizes (thus reducing teacher numbers, either through attrition or layoffs). Loudoun has talked about increasing student fees.

All of the school systems are pretty badly off. Prince William might be hit a little harder than some others with state funding cuts, but the extent of those cuts hasn't been decided yet by the Va. assembly.

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What happened to the booster clubs?: Michael, I grew up in the Midwest, where parent booster clubs were prominent in raising money, both when I attended Catholic school and public school. Don't parents around here get involved in raising money for schools already? If not, why not? And if so, how will things be different in this new economy?

Michael Birnbaum: Money is tight both in governments and in private households! I know that lots of PTAs and PTOs in the Washington region are still working to raise money, but these budget shortfalls go beyond what any one parent booster organization can provide.

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Arlington, Va.: How are the magnate schools doing? Schools like the Key School in Arlington appeal to me because they teach in both Spanish and English. Are they being affected by cuts?

Michael Birnbaum: Public magnet schools get their funding from the same sources as non-magnets and are just as hard-hit by cuts.

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Arlington, Va.: My daughter is planning to try out for a spring sport at Yorktown soon -- do you see sports as being the first things to be cut as times get tougher? I hate the idea of sports, music and the arts exiting school life just because Wall Street couldn't get their act straight.

Michael Birnbaum: I don't think anybody's talking about getting rid of sports completely. Certainly a lot of people really love them. What seems likelier is that fees would be imposed to participate, or that certain sports would get cut, or that grade restrictions would be imposed (for example not allowing freshmen to participate).

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Falls Church, Va.: What are you hearing from teachers and administrators regarding potential cuts? Are the teachers being forced to pay for their own supplies? I know that happens in poorer areas already. Do administrators see ways to cut things with minimal impact to teachers and students?

Michael Birnbaum: Teachers are pretty nervous, some for their jobs, others for increased class sizes, others for the impact of other cuts. Administrators don't seem very happy either. And I don't think anybody quite knows the full impact of state budget cuts, just that it will hit hard.

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Rockville, Md.: What are some of the harsher cuts you've seen (or heard might be coming) as you've been doing your reporting? What should we be bracing for? And do you see a way to stem the tide?

Michael Birnbaum: One of the harshest proposed cuts I've seen is in Loudoun, where if county funding is cut by 15 percent the superintendent is said he'll completely eliminate funding for buses for field trips. I doubt that it'll get that bad, and he's certainly said he has no desire to go that far.

But there are lots of other cuts that can hit hard, too -- school closures, reduced teacher staffing... many options to choose when looking for harsh cuts this year.

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Falls Church, Va.: Music programs have been the first cut for a long time. It's only now that SPORTS are feeling the effects of budget problems that people are up in arms. Music does a lot more for a growing brain than football ever will. When will the focus return to education instead of the extras? Why not make kids pay for after school activities, with some help for those from low income families, instead of cutting actual classes and programs? Sure kids who play sports get scholarships, but only the really good ones. They also miss class to travel, get injured, and get promoted year after year for no reason. I know I got more out of being in the pep band, which cost the school NOTHING, than many of the football players, who didn't even go to college.

Michael Birnbaum: Thanks for the comments. Probably not a consolation that both are getting cut this year.

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School closings: Can you talk about which schools might close? How are the big new ones doing that have been recently constructed in the exburbs to contain all of the kids whose families moved outside the beltway during the real estate boom? If schools close, will we next have to deal with overcrowding in the remaining schools? Or are we entering into a season of lower birth years meaning less space is needed?

Michael Birnbaum: In Loudoun, four very small, rural elementary schools might be closed -- Aldie, Hillsboro, Lincoln and Middleburg. These are some of the oldest schools in the system, remnants from when Loudoun was a sparsely-populated agriculture county instead of the sprawling suburban place it is now. Prince George's County has only said that six schools will close, and it hasn't identified which they'll be.

Certainly the remaining schools will be fuller, though in Loudoun, at least, a big new elementary school will open next year, providing some more capacity.

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Springfield, Va.: Are there any guidelines (state, federal, from the Teachers Union, I don't know) that would delineate how and when parents should be tapped for additional funding to keep schools running? And do you expect that taxes will rise this year across districts to cover shortfalls?

Michael Birnbaum: Don't think there are any guidelines at all regarding when parents should be tapped; in theory public education isn't supposed to cost anything more for those who send their kids to public schools than those who don't.

Tax hikes have been discussed in several counties.

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Washington, D.C. - The Real $ Crisis: Why so little attention to student loans? This is the real crisis.

College graduates are completing their degrees with no jobs, and no prospects of jobs, at an alarming rate, and student loans prevent them from buying homes and cars. The average new lawyer starts out with about $90,000 in loans -- that's over $25,000 more than the average employed lawyer is paid. And almost half, nationally, are out of work. Every time student loan limits are increased, tuition is increased to "capture" the available revenue. In no other country on earth is educational financing a purely private matter -- in most of Europe, tuition payments as such are nominal.

Student loans are killing what should be the most promising part of the U.S. economy, and no one is doing a thing.

Michael Birnbaum: Thanks for your comments.

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Superintendent pay: Why is it when there are "serious" budget cuts, the superintendent and upper management aren't affected? Or have there been instances where this has happened?

Michael Birnbaum: That's a very valid question and one that I've heard a lot of people ask. In Loudoun County, for example, cuts to central office staffing wouldn't kick in unless the county cut local funding by 15 percent. The superintendent has said that the central office is efficiently staffed already, and that it would be awfully difficult to cut from it, but many people asked me if that's really the case.

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Fairfax, Va.: Hi. I have relatives in county schools. I have noticed some items that seem wasteful and costly to the taxpayer.

1. These children sometimes get two sets of school texts, one to keep in school, the other to keep at home. One child plays the horn in the school band. She has two horns, one at school, one at home.

2. Does the county pay for SAT and AP tests? I have read (Jay Matthews) that the county encourages all to take these tests and classes, even those who don't stand a chance at doing well. Patrick Welsh of TC Williams High has written about the disruption these underachievers cause in class and during tests.

3. Is it true that the county busses kids from one school to another if the home school does not offer a class the child wants? If true, I suspect that this entitlement will probably stop.

These are just a few items and I know they sound like peanuts. However, school texts for one high schooler can cost well over $300, and that is for one set of USED books. Instrument rental varies -- the cheapest I've paid is $20/month for a violin. AP and SAT tests are nearly $100 per test. Bus transport is not "free": it costs about $1000 per year per child at private schools, so trips to and from public schools must be somewhere in that ballpark.

Do we need the redundant books, musical instruments and bus transportation? We should pay test fees for needy kids who really have a shot at passing them and hope to go to college. I've never been convinced that taxpayers should pay for all AP and SAT tests for everyone, if that is indeed the case now.

Michael Birnbaum: Thanks for your questions. I don't know anything about the specific circumstances of dual texts or band instruments. Haven't heard anything about busing either, though I don't think the schools take students from one school to another for classes in the way you describe.

The schools do indeed pay for AP tests, as do most of Northern Virginia's school systems; this has come in the last ten years or so, and is designed to boost student participation in those advanced classes and exams. Fairfax doesn't have any plans to change this, but that's one way Loudoun County plans to save some money.

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Michael Birnbaum: Thanks so much for chatting today -- time for me to hunker down and write some more about budget cuts. I appreciate all the great questions! And good luck with your budgets in the coming months...

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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