With books tucked neatly on the shelves and a comfy purple-dragon rug in a back-corner nook, the library at San Diego’s Willard B. Hage Elementary School is the perfect place for children to fall in love with reading. Since the start of the school year, however, the library has been off-limits to students, who get to go there only when teachers can escort them and handle the record-keeping. “With all of the cutbacks we’ve had in the last few years, the district can’t pay for someone to help check out books,” explains Pam Wiesenberg, a third-grade teacher at the school. “As a result, the children suffer.”
As the national economy continues to nose-dive, a growing number of public schools have found themselves facing similar situations and making more and more painful cutbacks. Advanced Placement programs, extra help for English learners, art, music and summer school could be on the chopping block in many places. Ditto for efforts to reduce class size. The gargantuan federal stimulus package should offer some relief to desperate districts; the House and Senate are haggling over versions that include at least $80 billion for education programs, a significant bump up from the Education Department’s $59 billion discretionary budget for fiscal 2008. But there’s a catch: a big chunk of the stimulus money that is designed to prevent massive teacher layoffs will be awarded only to states that spend at least as much on education as they did in 2006 a tall order given that a minimum of 42 states are facing significant budget gaps. At least 20 states have already cut their K-12 budgets. Moreover, even with the federal stimulus money, school districts will still get the bulk of their funding from state and local coffers, which haven’t been this low in decades. As Randall Moody, manager of federal advocacy for the National Education Association, says, “When you have 40 states with serious budget issues and that’s where schools get the bulk of their money, naturally there’s going to be a problem.” Budget woes are perhaps most acute in California. The state, the most populous in the U.S., spends about $48 billion a year on K-12 education, or nearly half its general fund, which receives revenue from a variety of sources, including income and sales taxes. This year, however, the double whammy of endless layoffs and an imploding real estate market has decimated the fund, with legislators projecting a $42 billion deficit by the middle of next year. To help bridge this gap, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed shorting schools $2.1 billion during the rest of this academic year and $3.1 billion the next. He wants to save an additional $1.1 billion by reducing the number of school days, from 180 to 175. Though the extra time off might cheer students, California school superintendent Jack O’Connell strenuously opposes the move. Best sound bite: “To close the achievement gap and prepare all students for success in the competitive global economy, we should be offering more time in class, not less.” Despite Congress’s holding emergency weekend sessions to push through a stimulus plan, educators in many states lament the fact that schools won’t see a penny of the extra money until at least July. According to O’Connell, some of California’s poorest districts are running out of cash for subsidized meal programs. The Hayward district is planning layoffs that would increase class size in primary grades from 20 students to 32. In Lake Elsinore, schools have turned off the lights in many rooms and placed duct tape over the switches to save money on electricity bills. See pictures of the college dorm’s evolution.
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