School Room ~ Photo by Rob Shenk

Photo by Rob Shenk

Even as school districts around California and the nation come under pressure to sustain existing reforms and introduce new ones, budget cuts are threatening to slow or halt those reform efforts.

That is just one of the findings of a national survey of school districts conducted between February and May 2011 by the Washington D.C. based Center on Education Policy (CEP), and released this summer.

According to the survey, two-thirds of the nearly 500 school districts surveyed that were not able to completely offset state budget cuts with federal stimulus funds “responded to these cuts by either slowing progress on planned reforms or postponing or stopping reform initiatives.”  The CEP report says the districts surveyed are a representative sample of districts nationwide.

School districts were not asked to specify which reforms were affected, as Michael Kirst, president of the California State Board of Education and Stanford professor emeritus of education, noted.  He said what was being imperiled in California was not so much planned reforms such as the introduction of “common core” standards and linking teacher evaluations to student performance, but past reforms such as California’s 15-year-old K–3 class size reduction program.

Kirst said sustaining those reforms will be more difficult because over the past two years California school expenditures have been cushioned by federal stimulus funds, which now have been largely spent, and district reserves, which are now in many cases severely depleted. “We are just at the cusp of seeing the impact of the cutbacks,” Kirst said.

The survey also underscored the extent to which budget woes experienced in California are mirrored in other states.

California, Washington and a handful of other states, are “in a very bad situation,” while a few states like North Dakota and Wyoming are doing relatively well, CEP president Jack Jennings said in an interview with EdSource.

But, Jennings said, “this report shows the economic difficulties facing school districts is not an isolated problem, it is a national problem.”

The report found that some 70 percent of school districts nationwide experienced budget cuts during the last school year. Some 84 percent expect cuts during the current school year.

Underscoring the depth of the impact, the report found that “no type of school district—city, suburban, town, or rural—has been immune from declining budgets.”

What’s more, the report found, school officials expect the already grim budget situation to worsen in the coming school year.

The report asserts that the slowing of reforms comes at just the time that a “broad consensus” has emerged around the central elements of reform, including the “adoption of ‘common core’ standards and assessments in core academic subjects and accountability for outcomes.”

Despite their budget woes, school districts receiving federal funds are still required to meet the extreme demands imposed by the federal No Child Left Behind Act to make “adequate yearly progress” and to require 100 percent of students to score at a “proficient” level by 2014.

CEP’s Jennings said “the wise thing to do would be to give districts some flexibility and some slack to carry out these requirements.” At the moment, however, the Obama administration is saying it will only give “waivers” to districts that meet several yet-to-be specified requirements. The Center on Education Policy is tracking state requests for waivers—and administration responses—in its “NCLB/ESEA Waiver Watch.”

States and districts seeking a range of federal funds are also under pressure to adopt the requirements established for the Race to the Top competition, such as establishing longitudinal data tracking systems, linking teacher evaluations to student test scores, and “turning around” their lowest performing schools.

The situation is expected to worsen in the upcoming school year, when more than four-fifths of school districts anticipate budget decreases and “few American Recovery and Reinvestment Act or Education Jobs funds remain to cushion the blow,” the report noted.

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