AASA Releases Study of the Impact of the Economic Downturn on Schools

November 12, 2008

Amy Vogt

ARLINGTON, Va. – School districts in every region of the country are feeling the impact of the economic downturn, according to the “AASA Study of the Impact of the Economic Downturn on Schools,” released today by the American Association of School Administrators. The study, based on a survey of school superintendents conducted in October 2008, finds that belt-tightening measures are already underway in districts nationwide in response to shrinking budgets. It also suggests the economic downturn could threaten gains in student achievement and progress in narrowing the achievement gap, which schools have fought so hard to attain, as well as the capacity of schools to deliver essential services.

Key findings from the study include:

When superintendents were asked to identify what actions their districts have already implemented as a result of the economic downturn, the top responses were:

  • Altering thermostats (62 percent)
  • Eliminating non-essential travel (57 percent)
  • Reducing staff-level hiring (48 percent)
  • Reducing consumable supplies (48 percent)
  • Increasing class size (36 percent)
  • Deferring maintenance (36 percent)
  • Reducing instructional material (35 percent)

The top actions superintendents have considered but not yet implemented as a result of the economic downturn are:

  • Freezing outside professional service contacts (30 percent)
  • Laying off personnel (30 percent)
  • Eliminating outside staff development consultants (30 percent)
  • Eliminating field trips (35 percent)
  • Cutting non-academic programs (such as afterschool and Saturday enrichment programs) (26 percent)

When superintendents were asked about the economic-related problems of the families of students in their districts:

  • Ninety-five percent said unemployment has worsened somewhat or a great deal.
  • Ninety-four percent said lack of health insurance has worsened somewhat or a great deal.
  • Ninety-one percent said student mobility has increased somewhat or a great deal.
  • Eighty-eight percent said mortgage foreclosures have worsened somewhat or a great deal.
  • Seventy percent said homelessness has worsened somewhat or a great deal.

Sixty-seven percent of superintendents described their districts as “inadequately funded.” Only 30 percent described their districts as “adequately funded,” and two percent indicated their districts have surplus funding.

Among those reporting inadequate financial support, a majority said their districts’ economic situation affects schools’ capacity to maintain a focus on student learning (87 percent), maintain a focus on instructional improvements (83 percent), address the learning needs of all students (83 percent), and meet or exceed state and federal performance assessments (81 percent). Districts with adequate funding reported limited impact in these areas.

Twenty-one percent reported the economic downturn is already affecting their district’s ability to borrow funds to pay for school projects. Eighty-eight percent anticipate it will be harder to borrow funds in the coming year, and 61 percent predict it will be harder to sell bonds.

The study also found that superintendents are proactively engaging the community as they make decisions in response to funding shortfalls. The five most common methods superintendents are using to engage others in the decision-making process are:

  • Discussions with the superintendent’s cabinet (81 percent)
  • Discussions at open school board meetings (70 percent)
  • Discussions in school board committees (56 percent)
  • Established a school-level advisory group (27 percent)
  • Consulted with legislators or other elected officials (27 percent)

Overall, the study reflected a general sense of pragmatism among superintendents regarding the need to tighten budgets and implement moderate changes in response to the current economic climate. However, given that the budget for the 2008-09 school year was passed before the current economic downturn, many responders indicated that the adjustments made to the 2008-09 budget are very moderate when compared to the cuts superintendents expect to see in their upcoming school budget discussions.

“In many communities, schools are on the frontlines of the economic downturn,” said AASA President Randall Collins, superintendent of schools in Waterford, Conn. “Schools provide essential resources for children in need, especially during tough economic times. We need to ensure schools have adequate funding so we don’t put our children at risk during these challenging economic times.”

AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech agreed. “Public schools are an integral component to economic recovery and growth. A strong public school system produces a strong workforce, fueling the economic diversity essential to a recovering economy. Reducing investment in public schools when capacity is needed to sustain recovery only multiplies the negative impact and prolongs the economic downturn.”

The full survey results are available on the AASA website at http://www.aasa.org.

About the Survey
AASA invited 5,686 superintendents via e-mail to complete the Economic Impact Survey online during the first two weeks of October 2008. A total of 836 superintendents completed the survey, yielding a response rate of 14.7 percent. Respondents came from 49 states. Fifty-eight percent of respondents represent rural districts, 32 percent represent suburban districts and 10 percent represent urban districts.

About AASA
The American Association of School Administrators, founded in 1865, is the professional organization for more than 13,000 educational leaders across the United States. AASA’s mission is to support and develop effective school system leaders who are dedicated to the highest quality public education for all children. AASA’s major focus is standing up for public education. For more information, visit www.aasa.org.