Our local district, because of budget cuts and despite a tax increase passed last spring, is cutting EIGHT days from our school calendar next year in order to balance the budget. Essentially, the union is agreeing to take a pay cut so that they don't get laid off. I had a nicely worded, shortish, letter to the editor going in my head this morning concerning this topic. When I looked up the submission guidelines for letters to the editor, I noted that our paper takes guest viewpoint submissions as well. These are published a few times each week right on the opinion page next to all kinds of interesting (and sometimes infuriating) folks. So I sent it off tonight. I think my version with 100 extra words was better, but I had to be brutal to get it under the guidelines. Then I had to write one of those horrid little two sentence biographies. (Science Teacher Mommy talks big about her educational ideals, but she let her kids play Wii MarioKart for an hour tonight so that she could finish her op ed piece.)
I have no idea if it will get published or not, but if I copy it here and hit that lovely orange button just below, then I get to publish anyway. So you get to say that you read it here first:
Even in prosperous times, legislators make hard decisions about which programs to fund. As a former teacher turned stay-at-home mom, I cannot help but react with dismay regarding the local districts’ terrible choices between cutting teachers, services, or days from the calendar. Though the shrinking schedule has grabbed front page attention, the reality is that the schools are cutting in other places too.
Two years ago, my son’s school was able to add a fourth, half day teacher to his large first grade class. The low teacher-student ratio this created was instrumental in his learning to read. Now, as he enters the third grade his class is essentially the same size, but they are discussing whether or not there will be funding to add a third half day teacher. This doubling in the number of students per room will affect the quality of education my local elementary school offers, even with its outstanding staff of committed teachers.
It is likely that you would hear a similar scenario if you spoke to any local teacher or parent of school-aged children. Monday’s paper reported disappointed parents considering leaving the system all together; a second story told about school libraries operating without librarians. How can we get to the point where a library is seen as a non-essential luxury at a school?
Society can either pay at the front end or at the back. Cutting budgets for education today means increasing funding for prisons and social programs down the road. Complaints are frequently heard about the terrible deficit facing our country and its detrimental affect on the next generation. However, rushing to balance budgets at the expense of an effective education will have a more lasting impact on our children than any projected deficit.
Front-end expenses include laws that give new parents ample paid time to stay home. Funding should be increased for early childhood programs—such as HeadStart—targeting our most vulnerable, at-risk population. If teacher salaries must be sacrificed, at least their class sizes should be small enough for them to make a difference. State legislatures should pass mandates for smaller classrooms in early grades, and then give the districts proper funding so that larger classes are not merely shifted into the secondary grades. New teachers need adequate training and mentoring.
Such expenses are investments in the future. But when we don’t invest, we must pay for back end solutions that are not solutions at all, but patches attempting to disguise a society coming apart at the seams. Prisons. Teen pregnancy. Drug use. Welfare system abuse. Homelessness. When people are not effectively educated and nurtured from their earliest years, there is little chance of them contributing to society.
It is clear which kind of spending creates an America where citizens are able to strive for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Yet the axe has already fallen. Despite having one of the shorter school years in the country, Oregon classrooms will shed more days. In our area, these eight lost instruction days represent roughly a 5% decrease in classroom time. My kindergartner will attend more than a semester less school than the class of 2010.
Though an “insider” to the system, I am not unaware of the problems in public education. I acknowledge that throwing more money at the problems is not an answer. American education can benefit from an influx of teachers trained in other professions, the fresh ideas of businessmen, and innovative re-structuring of school curriculum and scheduling. However, it is deeply unfair that at a time when politicians clamor for “accountability in education,” they are cutting funding for the very things proven to increase test scores—smaller teacher to student ratios, well-trained teachers, and, yes, more calendar days.
When the economy is weak, everyone must cut corners. The message from Salem is that our public schools will not be exempt from tightening their belts. Though we have little choice but to accept this temporary non-solution to the budget crisis, let us not be complacent. Volunteer to listen to kids read at your local school this fall. Join the PTA. Help a teacher with classroom supplies. Write to our local representatives to tell them what we think of their priorities. Vote in the next election cycle for people who pledge to put Oregon schools on top.
Democracy can only exist in an educated populace. As budget cuts create schools where our most talented educators are little more than managers and babysitters, we form a culture that is only a generation from collapsing into chaos. It is ultimately cheaper and easier to invest in the front end, than to play clean up on the back end. We have an obligation to create a generation of individuals ready to solve the worlds’ problems, not compound them.