After a particularly brutal budgeting season this summer, states and school districts across the country have fired thousands of teachers, raised college tuition, relaxed standards, slashed days off the academic calendar and gutted pre-kindergarten and summer school programs.
Slashed budgets are nothing new for educators, but experts say this year stands out.
Last year, K-12 budgets were cut $1.8 billion nationwide. According to estimates by the National Assn. of State Budget Officers, cuts to K-12 for the new fiscal year may reach $2.5 billion.
A year ago, higher-education budgets across the nation were trimmed $1.2 billion. The expected cuts this year: $5 billion.
"They've long since been cutting deep into the bone," said Michael Leachman of the nonpartisan Center on Budget Policies and Priorities, based in Washington.
At least 22 states have scaled back K-12 funding and at least 24 have made cuts in higher education for fiscal year 2012, the center found.
To cover such shortfalls, experts say, school officials often reduce, or eliminate, personnel and programs vital to the most vulnerable populations: lower-income and minority students.
In California, many school districts cut spending for adult education, libraries, textbooks, arts and music, gifted students, tutoring for low-performing high school students and other programs, according to two major surveys, including one by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office. Many districts shortened the 180-day school year by five days.
"These are extraordinarily inequitable cuts for low-income communities of color," said Arun Ramanathan, executive director of the Education Trust-West, an Oakland-based advocacy group.
He said that a shorter academic year and cuts to summer classes exacerbate their generally lagging achievement because many low-income students cannot afford the enriched activities enjoyed by their middle-class counterparts, such as museum visits and private tutoring.
In Florida, state funds for 15,000 children to attend a school-readiness program for low-income families have been cut, and college tuition was raised 15% for the fourth consecutive year. Texas eliminated funding for pre-kindergarten programs that serve about 100,000 at-risk children.
Though cuts in education reach all demographics, they do not affect all students equally, said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, a nonpartisan research group based in Washington.
"If we're worried about the future, we have to be worried about these equity issues," Jennings said. "Who's going to be the employees, the industry leaders in the future? Increasingly, they will be children of color, and they're not going to close the achievement gap."
Across the country, education officials are finding ways to save money:
In California, many districts have cut back on high school counselors, leaving many students to sort out the college application process on their own.
In New Mexico, some school districts have gone to four-day school weeks.
In Illinois, high school juniors will no longer be evaluated on writing skills after the state eliminated a writing test, saving about $2.4 million.
University of California students will pay $1,818 more in tuition this year than last, after increases of 8% and 9.6%, and Cal State University tuition will rise by $294, to $5,472.
In Washington state, lawmakers cut more than $1 billion in class-size reduction, early learning programs and teacher development.
Reaction to such cutbacks has varied. Outside Sioux Falls, S.D., teachers and administrators in the Brandon Valley School District worked without pay during summer school to stave off cancellation of the summer program.
At Wonderland Elementary School in Los Angeles' Laurel Canyon, parents have managed to raise $450,000 a year to retain science, art, physical education, teachers' assistants, yard supervision and a librarian for a library completed two years ago, parent leader Teri Levy said.
But they have not been able to prevent class sizes from swelling, as they have around the state. At Wonderland, classes in the lower grades have grown from 20 to 28 students in the last few years.
"It's so packed that teachers can't focus on all of the kids in the class," Levy said.
In many parts of the country, parents and teachers have taken to the streets to protest, but to little effect.
In Philadelphia, parents mustered 400 signatures on a petition in hopes of saving the job of Hau Chau, a bilingual counseling assistant at H.A. Brown Elementary. Chau was the only Vietnamese-speaking employee at a school where 18% of students speak the language at home.
"The students feel comfortable, feel protected when I'm there," Chau said. "I try to guide them and talk to their teachers to find a way for the students to feel comfortable and happy while they are in school."
But nearly half of the 103 bilingual counseling assistants and 16 of the 275 teachers of English as a second language in the School District of Philadelphia were laid off. One of them was Chau. (The district says it will move another Vietnamese speaker to H.A. Brown.)
In all, the district laid off 1,228 teachers and 1,277 non-instructional staff members to close a $629-million shortfall after the state slashed about $851 million in funds for Pennsylvania public schools.
Pennsylvania highlights a problem nationwide. Many districts relied on the $787-billion federal stimulus, the Recovery Act of 2009, to make ends meet. The stimulus included $97.4 billion for education. That money is running out.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, says it was the school districts' insistence in recent years on crafting budgets with federal funds — not the Legislature — that caused more than 3,000 teacher layoffs across the state.
"We will not be laying off the school district teachers," Corbett said. "And the school districts have their own financial decisions that they have to make. I would note that many of them took the federal money, were told that the federal money would go away, made their budgets in the past based upon that, and now that money is not there."
In California, state budget cuts and declining enrollment have delivered a one-two punch, pushing more than 140 school districts into financial jeopardy. In the last three years, schools have lost $18 billion they otherwise would have received in state funding and cost-of-living increases — the largest reduction in recent history, according to fiscal experts.
Funding has increased a bit in the last few years — including a $200-million increase for the 2011-12 school year. Federal aid has helped cushion the blow, but per-pupil funding is still 20% lower than in 2007, according to state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson.
The Legislative Analyst's Office calculates the reductions differently, putting the decline at 11.6%.
The disparities have heightened the challenges of educating the state's 6.2 million schoolchildren, 20% of whom live in poverty and one-third of whom are learning English as a second language.
"It's the worst crisis ever in California schools," Torlakson said.