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Budgets cut student experience

By Joseph Van Harken

Many schools' athletics, music and art programs have been hurt in the latest round of cutbacks.

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(CNN) -- When Cristie Praeger walks through her class in the morning and sets down two bulging shopping bags filled with art supplies, she said her normally loud, energetic second-graders freeze with anticipation.

"They get so excited," Praeger, 26, said. "They'll ask me all day long, 'Miss Praeger, when are we going to get to make art? Can we do it now? Can we? Can we Miss Praeger?'"

Praeger said she wishes art could play a regular part in her lesson plans. The students' interest in reading, writing and math increase when she employs creative methods.

But, she can't afford it. She bought the construction paper, markers and glue with her own money because she doesn't have an expense account.

Over the past couple years, like many Americans, students have been feeling the effects the economic recession. Shrinking state and local education budgets matched with the added pressure of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which sets rigid standards in reading and math that schools must achieve in order to receive federal funding, have created a new challenge for districts.

State legislators, local officials and school administrators are scrambling to get through these tough times without hurting the student experience. But the clock is ticking on their options.

Praeger's school, Bronx Public School 196, has been on the state's Schools Under Registration Review (SURR) list for past three years. New York put SURR into action in 1989 to help improve math and reading. So, an unintended consequence is that art and other classes like music, gym, science and social studies get cut or compromised to make the budget focus more on the core curriculum.

"I don't disagree that reading and math are the most important aspects of education. But compromising other subjects... causes us to teach only for the test," Praeger said. If a student's talents lie in art, or music or science, they lose out, she said. "And schools can't force [teachers] to be creative in their approach, especially if all that matters is a test score."

National trend, no end in sight

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), school budget crunches have been a trend over the past couple years and span the entire nation.

"There's no light at the end of the tunnel right now," said Steve Smith, NCSL Senior Policy Specialist.

In an NCSL report released July of 2002, out of 42 states who filed, 29 said they would implement targeted or across-the-board budget cuts for the 2003 fiscal year. During that time, 12 reported K-12 spending reductions.

"Education has always been a sacred cow in state budgets," Smith said. "There's a constitutional responsibility to provide all students a decent one."

Diminished funds could prohibit schools from investing in new technology, such as computers., a research organization administered by the University of Richmond, reported that teachers in Claremore, Oklahoma, doubled as janitors while principals in Putnam City and Enid, Oklahoma, served as substitutes. A school in Springfield, Massachusetts, laid off 12 nurses, left 100 teaching and 80 paraprofessional slots open, eliminated its hot breakfast program and closed all school pools. And teachers in Twin Falls, Idaho, gave up a day's pay to help cover the audiologist's salary.

Postpone, avoid, and minimize

When faced with a must-cut situation, Smith said, districts tend first to postpone the purchase of ancillary needs. For example, they may cut back on toilet paper, pass on buying the newest edition of textbooks or wait a year to upgrade computers.

"Right now, many of our students probably wouldn't notice there's a budget crisis," said Roger Crutchfield, principal of Claremore, a 1,100-student high school in Oklahoma. "We saw this coming and planned for it early. Just because the state tells you they're giving you money doesn't always mean it comes true."

Crutchfield has been at the school a total of five years, the first three serving as assistant principal. But he said the past two years have been serious when it comes to the budget. The pressure isn't letting up this coming year, he said, and if the trend continues, they may have to cut more staff, which comprises roughly 80 percent of costs.

Cutting staff today means avoiding anything that has to do with reading and math, Crutchfield said. But that doesn't mean the student experience isn't affected.

"Activities are such a vital part of education," he said. "For many kids, that's why they come to school, for the band or chorus or sports. I mean even for us, when we look back at high school, we remember the lessons we learned on the ball field or how the band teacher influenced us."

So, at Claremore, they've cut and consolidated some administrative positions, he said. "Now someone in the admin office may wear three different hats rather than one. We've outsourced our plumbing, carpenter and HVAC needs and our teachers have been cleaning their own rooms."

Next, they may look at transportation costs, Crutchfield said. "There's a lot of money you can save by cutting a 60-mile bus route."

But, even cutting bus routes can have a tremendous impact on students, said Doug Johnson, vice principal at Westhill High School, a 700-student school in a middle-to-upper-class suburb of Syracuse, New York.

"Kids end up having to walk home, find their own rides or not participate in sports, or drama, or even stay late for IA [an after school tutoring program]," Johnson said.

Music, sports affected

Westhill also has felt effects of a tighter budget over the past few years. This year, a gym teacher retired. Rather than replacing the position, Johnson said, they decided to save the money and make gym classes bigger. This makes organized activities and sports more difficult to manage, Johnson said. So, instead of playing team-building sports like flag football and softball, students will do more individual running and conditioning.

"If things get real bad," Johnson said, "we'll have to cut classroom staff. But we minimize impact on areas required and tested by the state or federal government. We'll target things like business classes, music and modified sports."

Students interested in developing business or music skills would have to look outside the school for programs or private tutors they go to on their own time, Johnson said. "People have to compensate. If the student can't afford it, well, that's the downside to this situation."

The downside looks like it will continue through 2004. In the NCSL report released July of this year, out of 43 states who filed, 31 said they plan to cut overall spending, up two from last year.

Data regarding how many states will cut education spending is not available yet, but "remember," Johnson said, "in times like these where relief doesn't look like it will come soon, once something is cut from the budget, you can't cut it again the next year."

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