The states' most serious fiscal crisis in more than half a century has worsened to the point that more than a third of the states are moving to cut millions -- in some cases billions -- of dollars from public school budgets, an area of spending that most had vowed to protect or even expand as they pursued the ambitious student achievement goals of President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act.
School officials from more than a dozen states said in interviews that the reductions would take a toll on student performance as districts increase class size, pare teacher training programs and cut services aimed at some, as opposed to all, students -- from remedial tutoring to advanced classes for gifted students. They said the Bush administration's signature effort to raise the performance of all students could be in jeopardy if the budget crises persist another year or two.
In New York, Gov. George E. Pataki (R) has proposed canceling state-funded pre-kindergarten, which serves 43,000 children in New York City alone. In Ohio, Cleveland officials have canceled summer school despite worries about the fate of failing students. And in Portland, Ore., officials have proposed raising the student-teacher ratio next year from 30 to 1 to 42 to 1.
The Dallas suburb of Carollton-Farmers Branch canceled training programs that school district Superintendent Annette T. Griffin said were designed to certify teachers as "highly qualified," as required by the No Child Left Behind Act. In Willmar, Minn., along the North Dakota border, after-school enrichment programs that served mostly the children of Mexican immigrants who came there to work for poultry processors were forced to close this month, said Superintendent Kathy Leedom. California school districts on Thursday notified 30,000 teachers that they may be laid off before next year, depending on how much lawmakers and the governor cut from the state education budget.
In Ohio, Gov. Bob Taft (R) said the cuts would hurt "capacity to meet higher standards -- professional development, teacher training, model lesson plans and dollars to intervene."
Taft had proposed a temporary tax increase to finance an increase in education funding, in compliance with a state supreme court order that found the school funding system unconstitutional, inadequate and inequitable. But after lawmakers defeated the tax increase earlier this month, a grim-faced Taft announced that he had no choice but to cut $90 million in aid to public schools. "This is a sad and painful day for me as governor," Taft said.
The No Child Left Behind Act increased federal education funding by more than 40 percent, but not enough to avert cuts in many states. Federal dollars account for less than 10 percent of K-12 spending nationally.
"We're supposed to drive all the kids toward success, and we have to do it with one hand behind our backs," said Ken Baker, principal of Wyoming High School in Cincinnati. "The truth is that there are going to be students left behind."
The Bush administration anticipates short-term setbacks at worst, according to Education Undersecretary Eugene W. Hickok. He said every state is on schedule to meet the first No Child Left Behind mandate -- establishing accountability systems that track student performance in every school by race and income.
"The financial challenge obviously is going to be a difficult one for states generally, and we've yet to see what the implications are," Hickok said. "But in the long run, the beauty of accountability systems is that, in times of scarcity or surplus, states will be better prepared to make budget decisions based on what works and what doesn't."
The accountability movement was shaped during the boom of the 1990s, when states invested billions of dollars in developing higher academic standards and tests aimed at holding schools accountable. They also created what some officials call learning infrastructures -- new curricula, teacher training seminars to disseminate best practices, and intervention programs for teachers as well as students who didn't make the grade.
It is those programs that are now being cut.
The watchwords of the accountability movement, as an Education Department report stated, are: "We have entered a new era -- an era that measures success by whether every child is learning, not only by the amount of dollars spent." Hickok noted that public school spending per student more than doubled in real terms in the past 35 years.
But many school officials said the funding crisis threatens to demonstrate the limits of having accountability without enough money. New York Education Commissioner Richard P. Mills credits the 30 percent increase in state education spending during Pataki's first two terms for a marked rise in student test scores.
Pataki, now facing a nearly 20 percent budget deficit, has vowed not to raise taxes. He has proposed to cut $2.1 billion from public education in 2003-2004, and Mills is among his most determined challengers.
"We're on a path to success. That's exactly what people demanded. The proposed executive budget takes us off that path," said Mills, who reports to the state Board of Regents, not to Pataki.
The cuts vary dramatically from one state to the next. California Gov. Gray Davis (D) cut $1.9 billion in the middle of this year, and plans more cuts next year. Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm (D) cut $127 million. In Virginia, Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) managed to keep education funding intact. So did Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R), although human services cuts in his state this month closed after-school programs in which low-achieving children were getting support. Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) is banking on a gambling initiative -- still before the legislature -- to keep state education aid intact.
Washington area districts have made only minor cutbacks, mostly by delaying planned improvements, such as all-day kindergarten in Fairfax and Montgomery counties and high school magnet programs in Prince George's.
There is no way to measure the cuts' impact on a national scale because each state, and ultimately each district, is making its own tradeoffs. But with 85 percent of district budgets tied up in salaries and benefits, cuts fall heavily on the other 15 percent -- teacher training, after-school enrichment, even bathroom cleaning contracts.
State and local officials say many cutbacks work against the goals of the No Child Left Behind Act. Teacher training is needed to meet the law's requirement that every class have a "highly qualified teacher" by 2005. Tutoring for at-risk students is part of ensuring that all students test as proficient by 2013.
"To educate every child, you must continue to improve the skills of teachers through staff development. But look what got cut first," said Cedar Rapids schools Superintendent Lew Finch.
Meanwhile, districts across the country are laying off teachers, and class sizes are rising after almost a decade of state and local investment in smaller classes. Research is mixed on whether smaller classes improve learning -- and if so, how much smaller -- but they remain popular with voters.
In November, Floridians approved a multibillion-dollar mandate to dramatically reduce class sizes from kindergarten through high school. They also reelected Gov. Jeb Bush (R), who promised them no new taxes.
Earlier this month, facing a deficit that has ballooned by almost a half-billion dollars in six months, Bush declared the smaller-classes mandate unaffordable and called on lawmakers to send it back to the voters. They refused. A state Senate leader announced on Wednesday that the state has about $130 million to pay about $1 billion in obligations.
The state budget crises resulted from the national recession, rising health care costs and the permanent state tax cuts enacted during the booming 1990s. They are worsening, with several states each week announcing that revenue is even lower than anticipated, requiring more budget cuts. In the past week, Florida's revenue estimate dropped by $200 million; Maryland's, by $106 million; Texas's, by $59 million; Indiana's, by $51 million. Colorado's revenue estimate is down $50 million since January.
This is the third year of hard times, and most states have already drained their rainy day funds and other reserves. Federal aid is not an option, with Congress and the White House focused on a rising federal deficit and on a possible war in Iraq.
Neither are higher taxes, in most states. Most governors elected in November promised not to raise taxes and are honoring the pledge. Taft and others who have tried to raise taxes have encountered stiff legislative resistance. Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne (R), an anti-tax champion for most of his career, wants a cigarette and sales tax increase to protect K-12 education. Earlier this month, the Idaho legislature nonetheless voted to cut education funding, and Kempthorne vetoed the measure.
"People say necessity breeds innovation, and that will have to be true," said Stephen Smith, a fiscal policy analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures. He said that a third of fourth graders nationally read proficiently, and that the No Child Left Behind Act requires 100 percent proficiency by 2013 based on state standards.
"That's a 200 percent increase in productivity without significant increases in funding for the foreseeable future. So efficiencies have to increase significantly," he said.
Mike Griffith, a policy analyst for the nonpartisan Education Commission of the States, said it normally takes 12 to 18 months for an economic turnaround to translate into bigger budgets. With no sign of a turnaround, sustained reductions are likely.
That is bleak news to Bernice Whelchel, principal of Baltimore's City Springs Elementary School and a White House guest along with several other principals on the first anniversary of the signing of the No Child Left Behind Act. Bush honored them in January for turning around failing schools.
"And you can truly say that because of your efforts and your love and your energy, no child in your school is going to be left behind," the president told them.
Whelchel agreed that love and energy had a lot to do with the gains, but so did a new curriculum. Direct instruction cost $60,000 in the first year for books, workbooks and teacher training. She financed it with a grant from a foundation. The second year, she gave up her assistant principal to pay for it. She worries she'll have to give up more.
"Without the necessary funds per pupil, we won't be successful," she said.