Commentary | Education

Lessons—Raising School Standards and Cutting Budget: Huh?

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


Raising school standards and cutting budget: Huh?

By Richard Rothstein

Congress and the president have demanded that states raise academic standards, and every state has now complied. Yet state leaders have also recognized that disadvantaged students need extra help to achieve these higher standards.

So several states, with some federal aid, have added summer schools, preschools and early childhood services. They have reduced class sizes and raised salaries to attract better teachers. From 1997 to 2002, school spending increased by 12 percent nationwide, after taking inflation and enrollment growth into account. Much of the increase was intended to help low-achieving students.

But now almost every state has a budget crisis. Programs that were added in recent years are either being cut or likely to be cut soon.

As reductions occur, most state and federal officials have ducked an obvious challenge: if programs like summer school and preschool and class size reduction were needed to reach higher standards, does cutting these programs call the standards into question?

A few policy makers have expressed concern. Thomas D. Watkins, Michigan’s superintendent of schools, is one. His state has cut $100 million from its summer school and early childhood budgets, including a math and literacy program for 4-year-olds from low-income families. Mr. Watkins insisted that Michigan would not lower academic standards in response. “We don’t lower standards in this state,” he said.

But he acknowledged that these cuts would probably “raise the odds of not meeting the standards,” with more failures and dropouts in future years.

In California, several districts had promised salary increases to attract more qualified teachers to urban areas. But falling revenues have forced these districts to break the promises or cut other programs. The Legislature’s budget proposes eliminating monetary rewards for improved schools, dealing a blow to California’s accountability system. In Los Angeles, class sizes are growing and the school board has voted to consider cuts in salaries and benefits as well.

Teri Burns, California’s deputy superintendent of public instruction, said that next year the budget crisis would be even worse, making even larger classes likely. Like Mr. Watkins of Michigan, Ms. Burns insisted, “We would not consider lowering our standards.” But she admitted: “We may have to reconsider how fast we can get there. If we can’t provide the resources for schools to meet our expectations, we can’t penalize schools for not reaching them.”

Kentucky was a leader of the drive for higher standards, but its revenues have also declined. Class sizes are growing, art and music classes are being dropped, teachers’ aides are being eliminated. But schools are still expected to meet Kentucky’s learning standards. Now, 142 school systems (80 percent of the state’s districts) have banded together to determine how much it would cost to meet the standards. The districts’ next step could be a lawsuit against the state for its failure to finance the higher standards it requires.

National leaders, too, have not squarely faced the contradiction of wanting higher standards while states cut the dollars needed to meet them. Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, took the lead in getting President Bush’s education bill passed last winter. Senator Kennedy believed he had a commitment from the president to support more aid to education in return for higher standards, more testing and more

But the administration endorsed less new money than the senator expected. Last month the Senate defeated a bill, sponsored by Mr. Kennedy, to provide $150 million in emergency spending for summer school programs. The money was partly intended to offset budget cuts that states are making.

Mr. Kennedy has not yet said that sanctions for failure to raise achievement should be postponed until adequate resources are provided. But this would be logical, because proponents of the new education law often cited summer school as a way that higher standards could be met.

In New York, an appellate court ruled last month that the state Constitution only required Albany to finance an education that gets children to eighth-grade achievement levels. But the court did not address whether, the Constitution aside, it is reasonable for the state to adopt tough new Regents standards while failing to pay for smaller classes, better teachers, summer school and early childhood services. Virtually every educator believes that these programs are needed to achieve higher standards in urban districts where low-income students are concentrated.

Higher standards and adequate finances cannot be separated. State budget crises are testing this relationship and, sooner or later, something will have to give. Without more money or lower standards, student failures are bound to increase.

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