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States Grapple With Funding Education Amid Budget Shortfalls

June 3, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Classroom cuts are looming, as the school year winds down for many states facing budget shortfalls. Jeffrey Brown reports on the potential layoffs and the new contract ratified by teachers unions in Washington D.C.
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JIM LEHRER: Next tonight: tough times ahead for teachers and school districts.

Jeffrey Brown has our story.

JEFFREY BROWN: As the school year comes to an end across the country, and with state budgets facing tens of billions of dollars in shortfalls, cuts in the classroom are looming.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said 100,000 to 300,000 public school employees are at risk of losing their jobs. Unions put the number of potential teacher layoffs at 160,000, with the biggest cuts projected to come in states like New York, up to 16,000, and California, as many as 36,000.

A year ago, states were confronted with the possibility of making similar cuts, but federal stimulus funds helped avoid them. This year, no apparent relief is in sight.

MAN: Yes, in the back.

JEFFREY BROWN: The threat of layoffs comes as school systems from coast to coast seek to implement major education reforms, including the often contentious issue of how to weigh teacher experience against teacher performance.

MAN: Where’s civilization, inside or outside?

CLASS: Outside.

JEFFREY BROWN: That includes Washington, D.C., a reform effort we have been chronicling for the past few years, where, just yesterday, the teachers union ratified a new contract. It gives school Superintendent Michelle Rhee greater authority to remove educators deemed ineffective.

The agreement also sets a new standard for teacher pay, one based on classroom results, instead of seniority. It also allows principals to use performance, rather than longevity, as a key determinant when reducing staff.

But D.C. teachers will also see a 21 percent increase in base pay over five years, at a time when other districts are freezing salaries to avoid layoffs.

And we fill in the picture for now with Jennifer Cohen, an education policy analyst at the New America Foundation, and Jay Mathews, education columnist for The Washington Post.

Welcome to both of you.

JENNIFER COHEN, education policy analyst, New America Foundation: Thank you.

JAY MATHEWS, The Washington Post: Thanks, Jeff.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jay Mathews, how big a potential impact are schools facing right now? How do you see it?

JAY MATHEWS: Well, there’s a great deal of disagreement about this.

My view is, it has almost no impact on the kind of reform measures we’re talking about, that most school districts will either freeze salaries or raise class sizes, and that, historically, doesn’t have much effect on student achievement.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, but before we get to reform effort, just in the classroom and in terms of the numbers, the numbers are pretty big.

JAY MATHEWS: Well, you will have — we will have one, two, maybe three more kids in a class. Data we have got shows that that kind of change in class size has no effect on achievement, no real effect on what goes on in the classroom. It’s not — it’s a fairly trivial effect.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you see?

JENNIFER COHEN: There are, of course, varying estimates as to the impact on the number of teachers that are likely to lose their jobs in this year. Some people are saying 100,000 across the country. There was another city that came out with 300,000 across the country, which does seem overwhelming, to be honest.

But it does seem that there are some alternatives to just firing teachers that a lot of district have yet to really consider.

JEFFREY BROWN: But, before you get to the alternatives, though, I want to hit a little bit what the actual impact is. I mean, where do you see the impact that you do see? Are they in particular states? Are they in particular types of school districts?

JENNIFER COHEN: Sure.

Generally, unfortunately, teacher layoffs do tend to affect lower-income schools a little more. A lot of that has to do with the fact that low-income schools tend to have more inexperienced teachers. And, as you have discussed here on this program before, there’s something called last hired, first fired.

So, the least experienced teachers are, the teachers who most recently started working at that school or in that school district are going to lose their jobs first because of teacher seniority laws — or contracts, I should say.

And because those inexperienced teachers tend to work in low-income schools, because they don’t have the seniority to work in the more desirable, generally higher-income schools, those are the schools that are hurt first.

And, so, across the country if a lot of these teacher layoffs do end up happening, we’re going to see that happening in the lower-income schools across the board, more so than in the higher-income schools.

JEFFREY BROWN: Does that sound right to you in terms of the schools that are most impacted…

JAY MATHEWS: Absolutely. The wealthier the area, the less effect.

In some cases, parents have enough money to pay the teacher if they don’t want to lose Ms. Jones, who’s been the favorite art teacher for 30 years.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, and that leads me to another question, because a lot of people wonder this. When budget cuts come, is it programs hit first? Is it, like, after-school programs — you just mentioned the art teacher — the arts, music? Is it sports, or is it personnel, or both?

JAY MATHEWS: Some sports will be trimmed. If you have a club team in golf, you might take that off. Often, they will cut after-school and particularly summer school. Summer school is being cut in a lot of places. And that’s a real problem, particularly in inner-city schools, where we know that that summer learning loss is a huge factor in student achievement. So, that’s a real blow if they do that.

But, most of the time, I think the smartest districts just raise class size slightly, and that doesn’t appear to affect achievement very much.

JEFFREY BROWN: In a place like California, which we mentioned as particularly bad…

JENNIFER COHEN: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: … is it more than just raising a few kids — the class size a bit, or what are they looking at?

JENNIFER COHEN: That seems to vary by districts, to a certain extent. They are talking about class sizes, which is actually complicated in California, because they have a categorical budget piece that goes particularly for keeping class sizes small in kindergarten through third grade, and then also in freshman English classes in high school.

So, theoretically, if those districts choose to raise their class sizes for those particular grades, they could be losing some of that categorical funding, which they may be unwilling to do because of the additional funding loss that that will mean for them.

And, in those places, they’re going to be looking at more service cuts like Jay was talking about, teacher layoffs as well. So, it really depends on the grade levels of sort of how much leeway they have. And then also, as we were talking before about inexperienced teachers usually get fired first, those are also the least expensive teachers, because teachers are traditionally paid based on their years of experience and on their — and on their — whether or not they have master’s degrees.

And, so, that means that, if you have an inexperienced teacher that’s making $40,000 and a very experienced teacher that’s making $80,000, you will have to fire two inexperienced teachers to make up for the salary for that one very experienced teacher. So, we’re going to see places where, if they have lots of experienced teachers, they’re going to actually have to fire more teachers to make up for that budget deficit.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Jay, this question of experience vs. proficiency plays to the Washington, D.C., story, one that we have covered a lot, as we said, on this program. The contract yesterday, how significant is it? How — where are we in this story?

JAY MATHEWS: It’s extraordinary. Part of it is unprecedented. The idea of paying teachers $30,000, $40,000 more, up to $140,000 a year, if they agree to be judged by their effectiveness in the classroom, including test scores, it just hasn’t happened anywhere else in the country.

The other part of it, which puts heavy emphasis in the future on — away from seniority and toward classroom effectiveness in terms of who gets fired when you have a downturn or a change in programs, that’s happening in some other cities.

But what is really politically interesting is that this was an agreement that was signed by Randi Weingarten, who’s the head of the American Federation of Teachers. She also supported a change in the law in Colorado at the same time that unions didn’t like. She’s actually taken her union in a very different direction from the larger teachers union, the NEA, which is mostly suburban teachers.

Her union is mostly urban teachers. And I think she’s going in that direction because she has got a lot of very young teachers who are very gung-ho about reform, who have seen (INAUDIBLE) schools work, and they know that unions get in the way of some of the things they want to do. And she’s sensitive to that. And, so, our two teachers unions now are becoming very different in terms of their policy toward reform.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, does — so, what we see in Washington does have some emanations or implications for other localities in the states?

JENNIFER COHEN: Absolutely.

JEFFREY BROWN: As well as big constituencies like the unions?

JENNIFER COHEN: Absolutely.

And there things that seem to be more popular as well in urban areas, as Jay was saying. Denver Public Schools is another great example, where they have a pay-for-performance or a merit pay system as well.

So, as we see urban areas sort of move in this direction, it will be interesting to see if MSNBC of the suburban areas follow suit, and, beyond that, even the rural areas, because that’s also where we see students with great learning deficits, who really need some extra support as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, just briefly, Jay, because Washington is able to do this, pay teachers more, but at a time — we started the conversation by talking about belt-tightening, which is what most places are facing. So…

JAY MATHEWS: Well, they — that — they have been able to change the way they handle money. They have cut back severely on office personnel, because they have a superintendent, a chancellor, who has almost absolute power and doesn’t answer to a school board, only answers to the mayor.

So, she’s been very — had a lot of leeway to do things. And, also, she’s gotten a lot of money for this amazing increase in salaries for people who want to go totally toward classroom effectiveness from foundations who are willing to bankroll this. It’s so unusual.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. OK.

Jay Mathews and Jennifer Cohen, thanks very much.

JENNIFER COHEN: Thank you.

JAY MATHEWS: You’re welcome, Jeff.