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Yes, Children are Already a Casualty

I am a primary teacher and have been for quite some time. I choose to work with Title I students — those who qualify for free/reduced lunches and are therefore deemed to be "at risk" for educational failure by the federal government. The needs of these children are far greater than the resources provided to schools in the best of times but now that states are making drastic cuts to their education budgets, the suffering is increasing exponentially.

Republicans in congress have an ideological aversion to public education — they see it as an entitlement that "wastes" far too much state and federal money. For generations they have attempted to thwart the popular American tradition of providing a free education to all American children through various means. The latest attempts to destroy public education masquerade as "school choice" and "vouchers" for private, often religious, institutions.

To further their cause they have manufactured an educational crisis that has finally succeeded in convincing even progressive liberals that something must be done about the horrible state of America’s public schools, hence we received the bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act, a rewriting of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that was based in large part on the "reforms" of the Texas educational system under then-governor George W. Bush. The groundwork was laid by Bill Clinton when he was governor of Arkansas and supported by Ted Kennedy as the co-author of NCLB. This diary is not about that, however, and if you want to learn more I suggest you start with Gerald Bracey’s Huffington Post blogs and his EDDRA page (Educational Disinformation Detection and Reporting Agency) found here:

http://www.america-tomorrow.com/bracey/EDDRA/

What effects has this relentless attack on public schools and public school teachers had on the lives of the children who are educated in public schools? I will share some of my observations from the classroom and let you come to your own conclusions about whether or not children are and will be casualties of the economic and educational policies coming out of Washington.

First, some basic math. Nearly all public school districts in the United States are funded by property tax levies. When property values plunge, as they have recently, the revenue used to fund education takes a proportionate cut. States can also count on subsidies from the federal government depending on various factors, such as the number of children who qualify for free/reduced lunches or the attempt to desegregate a community. Many states also supplement their education budgets with profits from lottery funds.

Under NCLB "accountability" became the guiding mantra and many, many ideological strings were attached to the funding sent from the federal government to the states for educational purposes. See the corrupt and failed "Reading First" initiative for more on this issue.

How has this impacted children? The underlying principal of NCLB, that all children deserve a good education and that all teachers should be "highly qualified" were never in dispute. The means of achieving that end, however, were, and still are, very much in dispute. At the very inception of the law Sen. Kennedy was duped when Pres. Bush, who had promised full funding for the law in return for its passage, immediately slashed the funding significantly. This is nothing new in DC — IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) which sets requirements for schools for the education of students with disabilities has never, in its 27 year history, been fully funded, though the requirements were never lessened. Schools have always struggled to pay for noble decrees from Washington that have never been accompanied by the necessary funding for the required implementation.

Money set aside for education is usually looked at in "per pupil spending", the amount of money a state spends on each child in the system. Those dollars are used for the following things:

teacher and support staff salaries
textbooks and supplies
buses, gasoline, insurance
utilities and physical upkeep for the school plant
training for teachers and other support staff
extracurricular activities
food programs

The list is longer and the budgeting is extremely complex but the bottom line is that for many, many years schools have been required to take a limited amount of dollars and spend them on various government mandates and requirements and there is very little wiggle room to anticipate such exigencies as increases in the cost of gasoline, insurance, and utilities. Schools have traditionally supplemented their funding through various fundraising activities, most often with the support of parents, and often by using the students as sales people (candy bars, gift wrap, magazine subscription, anyone?)

As states have lost more and more revenue they have cut more and more money from their education budgets. The mandates and requirements have not changed any — the program that cost $100 per child last year still costs $100 per child this year (or more, most likely) yet the money you receive to pay for it has been reduced by 15 – 20%. Anyone with simple math skills can see this is a recipe for financial disaster.

So again, how are the children impacted? Here is a partial list of what my own school district has had to do in just the last year:

Field trips banned unless privately funded (despite that fact that US Dept. of Education research shows that actual experience is the strongest influence on the retention of knowledge)

Extracurricular activities, including sports, cut or severely curtailed

Textbook and supply purchases cut drastically, meaning that children are often not receiving the most current knowledge but rather outdated knowledge, especially in history and science.

Technology support curtailed or significantly reduced

All "unnecessary" travel banned, meaning a loss of training for teachers and staff and the ability to keep skills honed and current, despite the mandate that we do so.

Support jobs cut by attrition, with accompanying hiring freezes, meaning that jobs that were once held by 3 or 4 different people are now the responsibility of one person. Tremendous increase in responsibility lessens productivity.

Across-the-board pay cuts and benefit cuts for all employees with a hiring freeze, meaning less people are available to serve the ever-increasingly complex needs of today’s children.

A halt to any and all new construction and repairs to physical plants.

Formerly full-time staff going to part-time in order to maintain a job at all. This includes a loss in benefits.

The children themselves are now coming to school hungry, sick, lacking eyeglasses and hearing aides, in need of counseling, dental and medical care, and clothing that their parents simply cannot afford to provide.

Children are moving more frequently and staying for shorter periods of time in one location, meaning that it is not unusual for a child to attend 3 or 4 schools in one school year and this has a direct impact on the continuity of their learning. There is no national curriculum so every new school is a start over for the student.

Children are missing more school days because of transportation issues or coming to school sick and infecting other children and staff because their parents cannot afford day care.

After school programs that require a payment and other day care has been cut and disappeared, meaning more and more children are latchkey kids and home alone for a significant part of the day.

Teachers who are relatively new in the profession are leaving because they cannot afford to live in the communities where they teach on the salary they receive. The impact this has on children are enormous. A revolving door of new and inexperienced teachers means that children may not indeed have a highly qualified teacher for several years in the crucial formative years.

There is much, much more that could be documented but I hope that the point has been made that children suffer when schools and teachers are penalized by budgeting decisions and until we, the American people, are willing to require our representatives to fully invest in education we are damaging the lives of children and the future generations of Americans who are too young to vote their own interests. We must keep pressure on our representatives to stop playing politics with the lives of children and our very future. Write or call your representatives today and insist that they stop using children and schools as pawns in their games.

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