October 29, 2008 / 2:43 PM / in 9 years

Economic pinch hurting U.S. schools: educators group

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. schools are struggling to cope with effects of the economic downturn, faced with a double whammy of rising costs and more students needing free meals and school supplies, the president of the National Education Association told Congress on Wednesday.

<p>Students at a school in Dorchester, Massachusetts, work on their laptops in this June 20, 2008 file photo. REUTERS/Adam Hunger</p>

“Rising fuel costs are forcing school districts to take drastic measures, including trimming or eliminating bus service, cutting all field trips, and shortening the school week,” the association president, Dennis Van Roekel, said in prepared testimony.

“With the frightening rise in mortgage foreclosures, schools are seeing record numbers of students who are homeless or poor enough to qualify for free school meals,” he said, adding that escalating food costs are forcing many schools to raise their meal prices.

Schools are also reporting record numbers of students needing donated backpacks and school supplies, and districts are having to lay off hundreds of staff members.

Van Roekel, the head of an organization that lobbies for 3.2 million educators, asked Congress to pass a second stimulus bill that would “help alleviate the pressure on state budgets and working families.”

Van Roekel was called to testify in front of the U.S. House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee about possible ways to revive the flagging economy. He argued that putting more money into repairing school buildings could help.

“In short, investing in school infrastructure acts as a job creation program in the struggling construction industry -- putting Americans to work building or repairing school facilities. This work puts money in the pockets of those workers immediately, and it can lead to higher productivity in the future,” he said.

Researchers at Rutgers University found that each $1 million of spending on school construction will generate 8.7 job years, he said. One job year is equal to one full-time job lasting one year.

The problems confronting school districts, meanwhile, could also dent corporate profits.

On Tuesday, McGraw-Hill Cos reported that part of the company’s 14 percent decline in third-quarter profit was due to “unexpected softness” in textbook sales. With fewer funds, schools are buying less books.

Revenue from the company’s education unit fell 4 percent to $1.13 billion as increased revenue from higher education offset a decline from primary and secondary schools. The July-to-September period is critical for textbook sellers because it includes the start of most school years.

Reporting by Lisa Lambert, additional reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Leslie Adler

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