Budget Cuts in the Classroom: What's on the School Chopping Block?

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Parents and students joined teachers and other school staffers at a Los Angeles protest against school budget cuts on May 13, 2011.

The slow pace of America's economic recovery means many states are still hurting financially. As many as 15 states still can't agree on a budget, and that's a problem, because in many states the fiscal year begins next month.

Parents are understandably anxious about what this all means for the upcoming school year. And they should be. An analysis released earlier this month by the National Governors Association and National Association of State Budget Officers found that 16 states are planning cuts for next year, following 18 that made extra cuts midway through last year. And that's before cuts at the local level. So even though fear about the education budget axe never matches the reality, there will be real sacrifices in some states and communities and, overall, spending remains below what it was just a few years ago.

Unfortunately school districts and states are more tight-fisted about sharing information than they are about spending money. And too often budget cuts are based more on what's easiest for the adults in charge of the schools rather than the kids in them. So here are 5 things parents should know — or ask — about the spending decisions and how they will impact schools next fall.

1. Understand the actual budget situation. In the through-the-looking glass world of school finance, sometimes things are considered cuts that really aren't. Are the budget cuts real cutbacks in dollars spent or is the size of this year's increase just less than anticipated or less than a few years ago? The key number to look for is how much is spent per-pupil in your community and whether that figure includes all costs, for instance buildings and facilities, or only annual expenses.

Most importantly, try to find out how much money is spent at individual schools. If there are big discrepancies between schools or if the overall per-pupil figure is a lot more than the amount per-student at your child's school, you should try to find out where that money is going.

2. Know what's getting cut, and why. The alarm about cuts always makes it sound as though the sky is falling. Parents want to know what's actually on the chopping block and why, but a more important question is whether the school district determines what programs are effective in the first place. So it's also worth asking whether decisions to keep or cut programs match up with the evidence. Here's an example: It doesn't appear that paying people more for advanced degrees in education has much effect on student learning, but school districts often spend a lot of money on this. Find out how much is being spent to pay for people to get various degrees and certification and how much is then spent on salary increases because of them. Could that money be used to save jobs or keep extra-curricular activities from being cut? Bottom line: This is a good time to get your Reagan on: trust but verify.

3. Learn about the options. Lean budget times don't have to mean diminished quality and the choice is not always cut or no cut — sometimes the best answer is to do something differently. Has your school district thought about ways to use technology to do more with the same, or with less? If something like art classes in elementary school are being cut, ask about creative ways to ensure that students still get, well, to exercise their creativity in school. An easy test is to ask school officials to explain the strongest case against whatever decision they're making. If they can't give you one, they haven't thought it through.

4. Don't obsess about class size. When cuts are looming, the first fear that springs to mind is that class size will increase. But this usually doesn't happen without a big fight. Teachers unions want to protect jobs and parents like small classes. In some places, there are limits in state law or in the teachers contract about class sizes. What parents need to know is that unless the number of kids in a class is going to skyrocket, what matters more is teacher effectiveness. In other words, having an effective teacher is more important in the long run, so if cuts are looming ask yourself, would you rather have a couple of additional students in your child's class or lose some other activity or enrichment altogether? And ask school officials to explain the budget trade-offs associated with class size.

5. Do obsess about layoffs. If there are layoffs, parents should make sure the best teachers are retained. That's just common sense. Unfortunately, many states have laws mandating that teachers be laid off based on who was hired last. Teachers contracts often have the same provisions. Just this week, the U.S. Conference of Mayors voted to oppose these "last in/first out" layoff rules and called for them to be phased out. Schools should be about learning for kids not jobs for grown-ups so if performance isn't being factored in, why not?

Andrew J. Rotherham, who writes the blog Eduwonk, is a co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education, a nonprofit working to improve educational outcomes for low-income students. School of Thought, his education column for TIME.com, appears every Thursday.