STOCKTON, Calif. – The financial crisis hitting many of the nation's public schools is taking a heavy toll in cities such as Stockton, a blue-collar port city that struggles even in good times.
Perched on the edge of central California's delta, about an hour south of the state capital, the city of nearly 300,000 has had some of the highest home foreclosure and unemployment rates in a state that has ranked high in both categories.
The hard times have spread to the local schools. Last year, the district laid off 100 teachers, gutted its summer school program and raised class sizes from 20 students to 30 in kindergarten through third grade.
Now, amid uncertainty over the state budget, the 37,000-student district is laying off nearly 500 teachers, counselors, custodians and other employees. It also is preparing to pack as many as 36 students into elementary school classrooms.
The Great Recession that began in late 2007 set in motion a building budget crisis for American public schools that is far from over.
Around the country, states are cutting education spending to close gaping budget holes while school districts are running out of federal stimulus money that had prevented widespread job losses over the past two years.
As budgets shrink and expenses grow, districts are laying off large numbers of teachers, raising class sizes, cutting electives such as music and art, scrapping summer school programs and shortening the academic year.
Among the 275 pink-slipped Stockton teachers is Elizabeth Old, who has taught English at her alma mater, Franklin High School, since 2007. She's worried about how her students, many of whom only read at an elementary-school level, will learn if class sizes keep growing.
"What's going on is so antithetical to what works in education," Old said. "I'm 27. I'll be able to work somewhere eventually, but there are kids who are going to miss out on their basic education."
Educators warn the school budget cuts are hurting the academic prospects of a generation of American students even as experts say the U.S. needs to invest more in education as it faces rising competition from China, India and other emerging economies.
"It's not just about the adults who lose their jobs. It's about the students who are impacted because they're no longer there," said Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association.
The cutbacks are expected to have a disproportionate effect on low-income communities that cannot soften the blow of state cuts with aggressive fundraising or local school taxes. Advocates worry that could further widen the achievement gap between students of different races.
At least 21 states have proposed cutting spending on K-12 education for the 2011-2012 fiscal year, according to a March report by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. That's in addition to at least 34 states that already have made cuts since the recession began.
"It's going to be bad, and it's going to get worse until the economy starts growing significantly," said Tom Loveless, who heads the Brown Center on Education Policy. "State revenues across the country are in deep trouble. They're way out of balance."
School spending is expected to hit bottom over the next two years as districts run out of $100 billion in federal stimulus aid for education and another $10 billion fund created to save teacher jobs last year, experts say.
The stimulus money saved about 368,000 school-related jobs during the 2009-2010 school year, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
A survey late last year of 692 school administrators by the American Association of School Administrators found that 48 percent laid off employees last year and 66 percent anticipate doing so this year.
With budget cuts hitting less experienced teachers the hardest, lawmakers in several states are pushing to eliminate "last-hired, first fired" policies and allow districts to impose layoffs based on performance, not seniority.
Unions are fighting those moves. They say such changes would make it easier for districts to get rid of their highest paid teachers. They also question the methods used to determine which teachers are most effective.
Regardless of how the layoffs play out, educators say the depth of the cuts will leave a mark on many school districts for years to come.
"The budget crisis has been a devastating blow to our district and to our students," said Carl Toliver, superintendent of the Stockton Unified School District. "The whole culture of the district is changing right before our very eyes."
Here is how public schools are faring in some of the largest states:
An agreement pending final approval is stirring panic from Houston to El Paso. Lawmakers have agreed on a plan that would reduce public school funding almost $4 billion from what the education system is owed under current distribution laws.
Analysts say almost 50,000 of Texas' 333,000 public school teachers could lose their jobs under the Senate plan.
In the Austin school district, more than 500 notices have gone out. In Houston, the state's largest district, 730 teachers have been told their contracts will not be renewed for the next school year.
Both the House and Senate plans would significantly cut funding for full-day pre-kindergarten, teacher incentive pay, college financial aid, arts and numerous other education programs. Many districts have proposed closing campuses to save money.
Republican Gov. Tom Corbett has proposed cutting more than $1 billion from public schools to help close a multibillion-dollar budget gap. A competing spending plan being debated by Pennsylvania lawmakers would ensure each district receives at least as much state aid as it received in the 2008-2009 school year.
Many Pennsylvania school districts, particularly the poorest ones, are preparing to raise taxes, lay off staff, end programs or close buildings to absorb the expected financial blow. Some stand to lose more than 20 percent of their state aid for classroom instruction, tutoring, full-day kindergarten and other purposes.
Officials in Philadelphia, the state's largest school district, say they face a $629 million deficit and will have to eliminate 3,800 jobs — including almost 1,300 teachers — and end full-day kindergarten, among other painful reductions, to make ends meet.
Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, has blasted the district's plan to balance its budget in part by cutting early childhood programs, calling it short-sighted.
The Legislature has approved a $69.7 billion budget that will cut education spending by about $540 a student, or 7.9 percent.
Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association, the statewide teachers union, said the union is expecting about 20,000 teacher layoffs. He expects to see increased class sizes, older textbooks and fewer course offerings.
"It's going to hurt children," he said.
Superintendent James Notter of Broward Public Schools, the nation's sixth largest school district, said money left over from a federal jobs fund from last year will help save about 350 jobs. But a $141 million budget shortfall means that about 1,400 teachers are being cut.
The district laid off 568 teachers last year.
"When does the dam break?" Notter said. "When do you break the spirit of your teachers? When does that point come?"
At Thurgood Marshall Elementary in Fort Lauderdale, art and physical education have been reduced and it has taken longer to get certain students special services.
"I was told to save every pencil because there's just not enough money for school supplies," said Sharon Hepburn, a fifth-grade reading teacher.
In California, school districts have been grappling with financial turmoil since the recession began.
General fund spending for K-12 schools has dropped over the past two years alone from $46.2 billion to $36.8 billion in the current fiscal year, although Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed putting about $3 billion of an unexpected income tax windfall toward the education system in the coming year.
The recession has cost the jobs of 30,000 California teachers and 10,000 support staff, education officials said.
"We're seeing the dismantling of what we used to enjoy as a solid comprehensive education," said state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson.
In May, teacher unions staged a week of rallies, marches and sit-ins across California to protest education spending cuts. More than two dozen teachers, including the head of the largest teachers union, were arrested when they refused to leave the state Capitol.
California school officials hope the cuts are coming to an end after Brown released an updated state budget plan that showed an unexpected jump in revenues that reduced the deficit to $9.6 billion.
The Democratic governor wants to maintain K-12 funding by extending temporary tax increases, but so far hasn't been able to muster the needed Republican support for his plan. Education spending would likely be cut if the taxes expire, but it's unclear by how much.
Amid the financial uncertainty, school districts issued about 20,000 preliminary layoff notices earlier this year. Many pink-slipped teachers could be brought back if the districts receive more state money than anticipated.
In Stockton, where 80 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, the school budget cuts could lead to more dropouts, crime and joblessness in a city with an 18 percent unemployment rate.
Many of the district's nearly 500 pink-slipped employees won't be rehired unless the state increases funding or employee unions accept significant pay cuts and furloughs, said chief financial officer Jason Willis.
At Van Buren Elementary, which serves as a safe haven for students who live in the surrounding housing projects, 18 of the school's 30 teachers have received layoff notices.
Among them is Debra Keyes, a veteran educator who has been pink-slipped three times since joining the Stockton district four years ago. The last two years the Wisconsin native was hired back at a different school the day before classes began.
"It's a lose-lose situation for everyone," she said. "Everything they say we're supposed to be doing for our children is not happening."
One of her seventh-grade students, 13-year-old Daniel Mayen, said he's worried about what will happen to his school next year and the quality of education he's getting compared with previous generations.
"We're not getting the same opportunities that they did," he said.
Associated Press Writers April Castro in Austin, Kathy Matheson in Philadelphia and Christine Armario in Miami contributed to this report.