Education no longer sacred cow, feeling cuts
The debt has resulted mostly from school construction. Experts don't expect districts to earmark much additional money for debt repayment, however, because state and local governments face budget shortfalls of their own that could lead to their sending less money to schools.
Some districts facing budget cuts are delaying renovations or waiting another year to buy new textbooks or computers. Other districts are turning to little things to save money, such as rationing chalk or paper.
"Education is such a sacred cow, usually, in an economic downturn, it doesn't
get hit as hard," said Steve Smith, education policy analyst at the National
Council of State Legislatures. "But given the magnitude of the budget crisis
today, it's on the table."
For instance, 17 states made cuts in K-12 funding last year, Smith said.
The latest Census Bureau report covers the 2000-01 school year, a period during which the economy slipped into recession. Data came from an annual survey of state and local governments and school districts.
That year, the Tucson Unified School District had a $306 million budget. The 63,000-student district is Pima County's largest and the second largest in Arizona.
Nationwide, school spending rose 7 percent to about $7,284 per pupil, but
wide variations exist among states and communities. Among states, New York and
New Jersey topped the list, each spending nearly $11,000 per pupil. Connecticut
Arizona and Mississippi were among the lowest, each spending less than $5,200 per student, while Tennessee spent more than $5,600 per pupil. About 93 percent of school district revenue comes from state and local governments, the latter relying largely on property taxes.
Michael Pons, a policy analyst with the National Education Association, said with many states facing huge budget shortfalls, spending on schools could take its biggest hit in 20 years when the new budget year starts in the coming months.
When the economy was booming in the late 1990s, states and communities poured
money into building and renovating schools. Most projects were funded by
voter-approved bond issues that brought with them many years of debt payment.
"The fact that schools are in debt because of school construction doesn't have much to do with the recession," Pons said. "The fact is, these were unmet needs that had to be addressed."
Besides construction needs, school districts face other expensive requirements, from technology to teachers. Districts in growing areas, particularly the South and West, have seen an influx of Hispanic immigrants, many of whom need special attention because of language.
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