Dire finances are forcing states to rethink education ideas that made sense in more prosperous times.
In California, nearly 22,000 teachers have received pink slips as the state's budget crisis bears down on the education system. School budgets in the Golden State have been cut by nearly $18 billion in the past two years with more pain on the way.
Budget-wise, California's schools are up a creek without a paddle or a life vest. Tom Budde, superintendent of the Central Union High School District in far Southern California, says he has nickled and dimed his budget every which way he can think of.
"Bottled water we stopped doing, stopped buying textbooks. But we did very carefully not lay off anybody," Budde says.
But it wasn't enough. So Budde turned to the teachers union. "We said, 'Hey, across-the-board pay cuts, furlough days, reduction in the school year, increase in class size.' "
The union went for bigger classes because it saved teachers' jobs. California has actually been rewarding districts for reducing class size — but many districts have given up that support, saying the extra funding they get doesn't make up for the cost. Budde says he hates to see class sizes go up, but he's glad he had the flexibility to take that step.
But if Budde were a superintendent in Florida, he wouldn't even have the option of increasing class size. Bill Montford, head of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, says voters there passed an ironclad amendment to the state Constitution in 2002.
"It's real simple. If you have a 19th child who shows up, you cannot put the child in a class where there's 18 already," Montford says.
Instead, you have to hire another teacher, maybe even build another classroom. Dominic Calabro of the watchdog group Florida Tax Watch says it has cost the state nearly $20 billion.
"It's made it difficult to retain let alone give pay raises for highly meritorious teachers and principals," Calabro says.
So his group and others are pushing to undo the amendment. It's particularly important now that the crash of housing prices has eaten holes in Florida's school budget. But he will face a fight from those who still support smaller classes, like many parents and teachers. The teachers union wants the class size limit to remain in place, saying it is what the voters wanted and that smaller class sizes are a critical investment in education.
Other Mandates Nationwide
Many other states are rethinking well-intentioned education ideas. In Michigan, tough times have forced the state to back away from an expensive obligation: Promise Scholarship, a college grant program for students with good grades, has been cut. And in Washington state, several popular scholarships are in jeopardy because of budget problems.
Some states are looking at granting relief from costly mandates — such as New York requirements that schools deploy defibrillators in schools or conduct internal audits.
In California, mandates cost schools more than $400 million a year. Fifty-one different requirements order schools to educate students about AIDS or to notify parents in writing if a student is truant.
Jim Soland, with the state's Legislative Analyst's Office, says his research shows that mandates like the truancy notification requirement stay on the books long after their effectiveness has been questioned.
"A form letter is sent out that is reimbursed at $18 per letter. Signs indicate that it does very little to actually increase parental involvement or reduce dropout rates," Soland says.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is considering suspending the mandates to help schools get through this very tough budget year. That hasn't happened yet, and even if it does, the mandates will live on and may return next year when money will still be tight.