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Lasting School Cuts Endanger Critical Reforms

October 17, 2014 at 10:27 AM

States have imposed large cuts in general education spending — as our new report details and I explained yesterday — with serious consequences for students, schools, and the economy.  Deep state funding cuts have led to job losses, slowing the economy’s recovery from the recession.  Such cuts also have counteracted and sometimes undermined important state education reform initiatives.

School districts began cutting teachers and other employees in mid-2008, when the first round of budget cuts began taking effect.  By 2012, local school districts had cut about 330,000 jobs. Since then they’ve added back some of the jobs, but they’re still down 260,000 jobs compared with 2008 (see chart).

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Deep cuts in state spending on education — including those job cuts — can limit or stymie education reform efforts.  Reforms endangered by funding cuts include:

  • Recruiting better teachers.  Research suggests that teacher quality is the most important school-based determinant of student success.  So recruiting, developing, and retaining high-quality teachers is essential to improving student achievement.  These tasks are more difficult when school districts are cutting their budgets.  Teacher salaries make up a large share of public education spending, so funding cuts inevitably restrict districts’ ability to expand teaching staffs and supplement wages.
  • Trimming class size.  Evidence suggests that smaller class sizes can boost student achievement, especially in the early grades and for low-income students.  Yet, small class sizes are difficult to sustain when schools are cutting spending and enrollments are rising.  Kansas schools, for example, have 19,000 more students than they did in 2009, but 665 fewer teachers.
  • Expanding learning time.  Many education policy experts believe that more student learning time can improve achievement.  Budget cuts make it more difficult to extend instructional opportunities because extending learning time generally adds costs.  Some states have even reduced student learning time because of budget cuts. Arizona, for example, eliminated state funding for full-day kindergarten, to which some school districts have responded by offering only a half-day program or by requiring parents to pay a fee for a full-day one, likely reducing the number of children who can attend.
  • Providing high-quality early education.  A number of studies conclude that pre-kindergarten or pre-school programs can improve cognitive skills, especially for disadvantaged children, but most states cut funding for those programs after the recession hit.  Of the 40 states that provide funding to preschools, 28 had reduced per-child funding as of the 2012-13 school year — often by large amounts.  (States typically support their preschool programs outside of their general K-12 “formula” funding, so these cuts come on top of those documented in our new report.)


These recent cuts may cost states much more in long-term economic growth than they save.  The cuts that states have enacted will weaken the future workforce by diminishing the quality of elementary and high schools.  At a time when the nation is trying to produce workers with the skills to master new technologies and adapt to the complexities of a global economy, large cuts in funding for basic education undermine a crucial building block for future prosperity.


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