Education institutions must keep a tight rein on spending as they search for signs that the national economy is back on its feet.
It might be tempting for education administrators, saddled with an accumulation of budget cuts and dwindling resources, to keep their heads down and concern themselves with only the immediate future as they try to overcome a host of obstacles and provide a high-quality education to students.
But schools and universities have to pay attention not only to day-to-day matters, but also to the changes that continually transform what is occurring in schoolhouses across the nation.
In 2012, new buildings will open on some college campuses, while elsewhere a school district has to make a painful decision to close a beloved, but obsolete facility. Administrators must keep up-to-date on the latest technology and how new devices can enhance student learning or school operations. Schools and universities must constantly be on the lookout for new ways to build and operate facilities more efficiently. They also must make sure they prioritize their spending so that scarce resources can be put to the best use. At the same time, they have to be prepared to slash that spending when revenue sources are taken away.
The outlook for schools and universities is about the same as it has been for a few years. A slow, uncertain economic recovery has improved finances in some parts of the country, but for others, the absence of recovery may require further cuts. It’s difficult to portray overall conditions when each of the thousands of school districts and higher-education campuses has its own unique characteristics and problems.
But regardless of whether improvements are already being seen or are too far down the road, education administrators have to envision what they can accomplish and be prepared for what might turn out to be a grim reality:
- Charter Schools
- Maintenance & Operations
- No Child Left Behind
School and university budgets historically have been at the mercy of legislatures or other governmental bodies that allocate education funding. Long-term planning is difficult when revenue amounts are uncertain from year to year. Budgeting for schools and universities becomes even more problematic when budgets endure years of cuts and still are subject to reductions during the year.
For many states, the economy was performing so poorly that governors or legislators have had to cut funds while the school year is ongoing. According to the Fiscal Survey of States Fall 2011, compiled by the National Governors Association and the National Association of State Budget Officers, mid-year cuts to education funding amounting to nearly $1.7 billion occurred in fiscal 2011 in 17 states; higher-education mid-year cuts occurred in 18 states and totaled $1.1 billion.
The outlook for 2012, the survey says, is that although some states are showing slow economic improvement, their spending is "likely to remain constrained due to the lack of a strong national economic recovery and the withdrawal of federal stimulus funds."
The survey found that 43 states enacted fiscal 2012 budgets that increased general fund expenditures over the previous year; however, 29 states say their general fund spending for 2012 still is less than the pre-recession levels of fiscal 2008.
Cutting spending has been the method used most frequently to bring school budgets under control. That has led to widespread layoffs of teachers and other employees, increased class sizes and other program reductions. But after years of slicing spending, at least one state is considering a tax hike to raise more revenue and preserve education programs. In California, Gov. Jerry Brown is hoping voters will be receptive to such a proposal.
"I will ask the voters to approve a temporary tax increase on the wealthy, a modest and temporary increase in the sales tax and … guarantee that the new revenues be spent only on education," Brown said in his budget message.
Without a tax hike, Brown says, schools and universities will have to endure more damaging budget cuts.
One area bucking the trend of slow growth is the charter school movement. The first charter schools were established in the early 1990s and had a goal of discovering more effective ways for students to learn. To enable charter schools to pursue experimentation and innovation more efficiently, states and school systems that authorized charters exempted the schools from many of the burdensome regulations that traditional schools had to follow.
As the Obama administration has pursued education reforms, it has provided incentives to persuade holdout states to drop their objections and allow charter schools.
More families are turning to charter schools to find an environment more conducive to learning for their children. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools says that as of fall 2011, 2 million students are enrolled in charter schools. Enrollment rose 13 percent compared with the previous year.
More than 500 new charter campuses opened in 2011-12, and the total number of charters in the United States is about 5,600, the alliance says.
Not all charter schools are successful, and in many cases the entity that authorizes creation of the school, or those running the school, decide to shut down. About 157 public charter schools that were open in 2010-2011 were closed for 2011-12.
"These schools closed for a variety of reasons, including low enrollment, financial concerns and low academic performance," the alliance says.
Some schools and universities have been able to acquire the funds to pursue construction projects, but unfavorable economic conditions have prevented many education institutions from addressing their space needs. Wary taxpayers look at bond proposals more skeptically, and legislatures may decide that schools and universities can wait to upgrade campuses until budgets are larger.
Some districts may decide to defer plans for bond elections until the economy improves. In other cases, voters have given school systems the authority to build more schools, but the cuts that have been imposed on operating budgets leave districts without any funds to open and operate new schools.
Dwindling budgets have made it critical for schools and universities to design and build facilities that operate efficiently so they can last for many years. Many states and individual institutions have adapted green construction standards, such as the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED rating system, to create facilities that will not create a burden for operating budgets.
One avenue for school districts and constituents seeking to acquire more education funding is to ask a court to order more spending.
Since a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the 1970s determined that education was not a fundamental right under the U.S. Constitution, states have been sued many times by those who felt that education funding was insufficient or unfairly allocated. The National Education Access Network says that 45 of the 50 states have faced lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of their school funding systems.
As funding becomes more scarce, the stakes climb for districts trying to get the resources they need. Districts and education supporters are likely to continue to turn to the courts when lawmakers are unable or unwilling to reach a consensus on school finance.
For instance, at the tail end of 2011, four separate lawsuits were filed to overturn the way Texas allocates state funding to school districts. One of the suits says the finance formula has devolved into "an arbitrary hodge-podge of approaches rather than a coherent system."
In addition, recent rulings in other states found fault with the systems that legislatures have established to distribute state funding to school systems:
•In December, a judge ruled that the Colorado school finance system was not "uniform and thorough," as the state constitution requires. Judge Sheila Rappaport called the system "unconscionable."
•In early January, the Washington state Supreme Court ruled that the state’s funding of school districts was inadequate, but for now left it to the legislature to come up with an aid formula that meets constitutional muster.
Despite the national long-term trend of modest growth, many districts, especially those in older urban areas, are experiencing a drop in student numbers because of aging populations and stagnant growth in cities. The push to expand the availability of charter schools as part of school reform efforts also has left some districts with empty classrooms.
School closings are a last resort for most systems, but after several years of budget cuts, many school districts don’t have the luxury of operating underused facilities. Many education institutions have decided to close buildings and consolidate campuses so that programs can be run more efficiently.
One of the most sweeping school-closing plans in 2012 will be in the Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia. The archbishop announced in January that he would close more than 40 elementary schools and four high schools—about a fourth of the system’s campuses. A church commission found that enrollment in Archdiocesan schools has dropped more than 72 percent in 50 years. Most of the schools that will be closed have enrollments of less than 200 students.
The Archdiocese says it does not know how many employees will lose their jobs, but estimates that 1,600 workers will be affected by the changes. The closings and consolidations also will affect more than 20,000 students. The Archdiocese estimates that the closings will generate savings of about $10 million.
The national picture for public school enrollment shows growth slowing in the coming years, compared with the 1990s and early 2000s.
The federal government’s "Projection of Education Statistics to 2020" indicates the public school enrollment will climb between 2008 and 2020—but at a slower pace than school districts experienced from 1995 to 2008. The projections show that 36 states and Washington, D.C., would see enrollment increases from 2008 to 2020; eight states would see growth of more than 15 percent; 17 states would see growth between 5 and 15 percent; and 11 states would see enrollment increases of 5 percent or less.
Decreases are projected for 14 states; 11 would see decreases of 5 percent or less, and three states would see enrollment drops of between 5 and 15 percent.
When the projections are broken down into regions, the areas of growth and decline are more identifiable. States in the Northeast region would see enrollment decline by 3 percent from 2008 to 2020, and states in the Midwest region would grow only 1 percent in those years.
States in the West region would see an enrollment increase of 13 percent from 2008 to 2020, and states in the South region would see growth of 10 percent, including a projected 22.7 percent enrollment increase in Texas.
Maintenance & Operations:
Continual years of budget cuts have made it impossible for education institutions to devote the resources needed to carry out needed maintenance of school facilities. Even when budgets are relatively robust, maintenance and operations staffs often have to protect their programs from others who consider building upkeep a lower priority.
In times of scarce resources, maintenance spending is even more vulnerable to raiding from other areas of an education institution. Increased spending in the 1990s and early 2000s helped education institutions reduce their maintenance backlog, but since the economic downturn in 2008, progress in that area has been stymied.
The Council of the Great City Schools surveyed the 65 large urban school systems in the council and estimated that they had about $19 billion in maintenance projects that had been deferred. Some of the district’s deferred maintenance projections: Los Angeles Unified, $5.7 billion; Portland (Ore.), $1.3 billion; Baltimore, $900 million; Minneapolis, $693 million; Baton Rouge (La.), $611 million; Boston, $500 million; Richmond (Va.), $423 million; and Houston, $390 million.
The districts responding to the survey told the council that if the needed money materialized, within one year they would be able to carry out 29 percent, or $4.1 billion, of their maintenance backlog.
No Child Left Behind:
Ten years ago, President Bush signed the education reform law that has become known as the No Child Left Behind Act. In 2012, educators will watch with interest to see if Congress can work out an agreement to revise the law. Given the dysfunctional state of Democratic-Republican relations in Congress and adding the politically charged atmosphere of a presidential election year, not many are optimistic that an improved education reform law can win approval.
The law increased federal involvement in local education and relies on standardized tests to determine if students are meeting the educational standards set forth. Critics of the law find fault with its heavy reliance on standardized tests and one-size-fits-all mandates for schools.
Because the Congress has not been able to come up with a bill that can be passed, President Obama has decided to allow states to seek waivers so they don’t have to meet burdensome proficiency requirements set forth in the existing law. Most states have accepted waivers while they wait for Congressional lawmakers to craft an acceptable bill.
Education institutions, seeking to create a more healthful environment for students and spurred on by a growing effort to fight obesity among children, have been focusing more attention on the nutritional value of the food that is served to students. Because the poor economy has made more students eligible for the federal government’s free and reduced-price lunch program, those menu decisions will have an even greater effect on the overall health of U.S. children.
An effort to establish more stringent nutritional standards for federally subsidized school meals was defeated in Congress, but health advocates have persuaded some states and individual districts to raise standards even without a federal requirement. One of the early examples of the push to rid campuses of unhealthful food is the reduction or elimination of soda and other sugar-laden beverages in school cafeterias and vending machines.
Making school meals more healthful can prove difficult if a school’s food-service operation doesn’t take into account students’ tastes. In some cafeterias, students will shun more healthful menu items that they find unappetizing, leaving schools with trays of uneaten food and students still lacking the nutrition they need.
At the higher-education level, many students and faculty members have expanded their embrace of the sustainability movement to include not only campus planning and operations, but also food choices in dining halls and other campus locations. Many colleges now offer vegetarian or vegan choices, and strive to acquire food from local and organically grown sources.
While focusing on the main goal of educating students, schools and universities must be vigilant about protecting students and staff.
One campus that will be in the spotlight over how it handles safety and security on campus is Pennsylvania State University. After news broke in fall 2011 that former assistant football coach, Jerry Sandusky, had been charged with sexually abusing boys in the football facilities of the university, Penn State fired Graham Spanier, the president of the university, and Joe Paterno, longtime football coach.
Two other men who worked for the university face state perjury charges for allegedly lying about what they knew of the incidents.
The U.S. Department of Education has launched an investigation of whether Penn State has violated the provisions of the Clery Act, which requires higher-education institutions to keep and disclose information about criminal offenses on campus. Another provision of the law calls for schools in certain cases to issue a timely warning if a reported crime represents a threat to the campus community.
"If it turns out that some people at the school knew of the abuse and did nothing or covered it up, that makes it even worse," says U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. "Schools and school officials have a legal and moral responsibility to protect children and young people from violence and abuse."
The teacher that a decade ago might have been thrilled to have a desktop computer installed in the corner of her own classroom now is likely to view the same machine as a cumbersome white elephant unnecessarily occupying space that could be put to better use.
In the world of technology, devices are getting smaller, wireless, more mobile and more powerful. That’s the world today’s students are living in, and that’s the world schools and universities should be preparing students for.
As has been the case with previous technology improvements, some education institutions pursue innovations immediately, despite what often are higher costs and an unproven track record. Other more cautious administrators wait for new technology to mature (and come down in price) before attempting to adapt new items for educational use.
The device with the most buzz, even though it was introduced nearly two years ago, is the iPad tablet computer. Many schools and universities have developed programs for students, some as young as kindergartners, to take advantage of the device’s speed, mobility and flexibility. Other less touted and less expensive tablets enable users to gain access to digital textbooks, websites and other Internet content. At schools where many students have acquired such devices, administrators may allow students to use their own devices, which could ease the burden on a school’s technology budget.
In addition, the cellular phones and mp3 devices that have become ubiquitous, even for young students, are another opportunity to communicate more effectively with students and parents. When the presence of cell phones first became noticeable at schools, many administrators decided they were a nuisance that distracted students from learning. Now, more and more schools recognize that parents, for safety reasons, want their children to have cell phones at school. School officials have seen that the instant and direct communication on cell phones can help them stay in closer contact with parents and their students.
Even though many school budgets have been squeezed dry in recent years, the education community’s embrace of sustainability continues to grow. The goal, environmental advocates say, is to make green design and operations a routine matter that doesn’t need to be singled out for praise.
"This is what we are working toward: a time when a healthy, high performance, green school is just called a school," says the Collaborative for High Performance Schools, one of the leading advocates for sustainability in school design, construction and operations.
In the meantime, the momentum for incorporating sustainability into schools is expected to continue to grow in 2012. Later this year, some schools will be chosen as the first-ever winners of the U.S. Department of Education’s Green Ribbon Schools Award.
The Green Ribbon program is modeled on the Education Department’s Blue Ribbon Schools program, which recognizes high-quality schools. A Green Ribbon school, the department says, is one that "saves energy, reduces costs, features environmentally sustainable learning spaces, protects health, fosters wellness, and offers environmental education to boost academic achievement and community engagement."
For the pilot year, 33 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs have notified the Education Department that they will be nominating schools for the award.
The Department of Education expects to announce the winners of the Green Ribbon Schools Award in April, to coincide with Earth Week. In the first year, as many as 50 schools will be recognized as Green Ribbon Schools. After five years, the department says, it hopes to designate as many as 300 Green Ribbon Schools a year.
In addition to making their building designs and energy consumption more efficient, many schools and universities also are focusing on the use of green cleaning materials in the facilities. Education institutions can protect the health of students and staff by ensuring that cleaning products and equipment do not create hazardous conditions during and after their use.
Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at email@example.com.