Washington — Last week, Oregon newspapers carried an Associated Press report that more than 4,600 taxpayers had voluntarily donated almost $700,000 of their tax refunds from the state to a newly created fund for support of public schools.
It was a small percentage of the $240 million automatically rebated when revenue for the 1999-2001 biennium exceeded estimates. But with the economic slowdown now causing a budget crunch in Oregon, as in more than 40 other states, these taxpayers recognized that education is in jeopardy. A recent special session found the Legislature cutting the schools budget by $112 million.
What is happening in Oregon is happening across the country. The National Conference of State Legislatures reported last week that in the current fiscal year, 17 states faced reductions in their budgets for elementary and secondary schools, and 29 faced cuts for colleges and universities.
The gap between this reality and the Washington rhetoric about raising standards in schools while assuring that "no child is left behind" is alarmingly large.
In just the last few days, parents and students in state after state have heard disturbing news about the schools. The Massachusetts House of Representatives received a committee-approved budget which would cut school spending 10 percent across the board, reducing state aid to local districts by $320 million.
In Tennessee, seven "Governor's Schools," where gifted and talented high school students lived together in dormitories for a month of challenging summer studies of science, the arts and even international relations, have been canceled. The $15 million cost apparently is more than the state can afford to invest in its most promising young people.
At the other end of the educational spectrum, the administration of freshman New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey has petitioned for relief from the court order requiring the state to put extra funds into the 30 poorest school districts. These districts were supposed to get $83 million extra in state funds to help them repair buildings, hire teachers and improve instruction. Instead, like every other district, they will be level-funded next year.
No governors or legislators want to damage the schools their constituents use. But the requirement to balance budgets in a time of slumping revenues has left them little choice. While Washington goes blithely on its way, cutting taxes, running up deficits and borrowing from Social Security, the states are in a jam.
What is happening to elementary and secondary schools is minor compared to the hit on higher education. In the face of rising enrollments, Pennsylvania is cutting its higher ed budget by almost 5 percent. Penn State students, who were hit with an 8 percent tuition increase this year, will face another tuition boost and a fee increase of up to $600 in the fall.
They are better off than University of Washington students, where the budget calls for a 16 percent tuition increase. And in education-conscious Iowa, the presidents of the three largest state universities said in a joint statement that the Legislature's cuts "will unquestionably compromise the quality of our educational programs." State funding, which once paid 77 percent of the bills, now pays 60 percent, and most of the falloff has been made up by raising tuition.
The irony is that even as all this is happening, a poll released last week reaffirms the importance of education to most voters. The Public Education Network and Education Week newspaper reported that when it comes to balancing state budgets, voters overwhelmingly say that schools are the top priority. Education leads the No. 2 choice, health care, by a 3-1 margin. Law enforcement, welfare, services for seniors, transportation and economic development lag far behind.
But that is not what the budgets reflect. Medicaid payments are the fastest growing state expenditures and those costs leave little room for education or other programs.
Washington is not helping much. The federal government is still falling far short on its promise to pay 40 percent of the bills for special education students, whose needs are a crippling cost for local school districts.
After boosting education spending by healthy double-digit percentages in the last year of the Clinton administration and the first year of the Bush administration, this year's federal budget calls for only a 2.8 percent increase.
With the feds preferring tax cuts to education aid, and the states cutting back because of their budget squeeze, America is in serious danger of backsliding on the promise to improve its schools.
David Broder is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.