Remember the story about boiling frogs? If you put a frog into a pot of hot water, he will jump right back out; but if you put him in a pot of cold water and slowly bring it to a boil, he doesn’t notice until it’s too late, and you have a boiled frog. Unless you want to cook poor little amphibians, the point of this story is that we humans often get used to terrible situations – even as the danger slowly increases around us. We can’t let this happen in public education, where our pot is nearing the boiling point.
Quite simply, the situation in our schools is worse this year than last year. Despite what Gov. Corbett’s administration continues to claim (see our response to yesterday’s ridiculous assertion), here in Pennsylvania our children are now dealing with the combined loss of nearly $2 billion. That’s the initial $1 billion trouncing that Gov. Corbett gave our schools in 2011, followed by the 2012 budget that locked those cuts in. Last year, the consequences of those cuts were new and raw, and our grassroots response was swift and loud. But we need to remember what is happening right now and not become complacent: we can’t accept this as some inevitable new reality.
This year at the public school my two children attend, we lost our parent engagement specialist, despite the fact that she served a critical role connecting with our hardest-to-reach families, and was having one of the most direct impacts on our trenchant racial achievement gap. Our beloved school is labeled a “failure” by the state, yet instead of receiving additional resources – as we are entitled to under the federal NCLB law – the district cut our after-school and Saturday tutoring program. For the second year in a row, parents have been organizing a volunteer tutoring program in its place with local college students and racing to raise thousands of dollars to cover other essential costs. Parents are also raising money to pay for transportation so students can continue to go on field trips.
Our 7th and 8th graders lost library; 3rd and 4th graders lost instrumental music; and the middle level students lost their in-school gifted services and their baseball team. We lost a full time member of the office staff, leaving only 1.5 people to serve a school of 720 kids and their families. Yes – 720. Parents have provided nearly all of the school’s supplies this year, from pencils to tissues. And our school now operates on a 6-day schedule so that we can call that a “week,” cramming in long blocks of reading and math to meet state requirements, while our kids get reduced access to “specials” like music, art, world languages, and library.
Perhaps worst of all, we lost 2.5 full-time teachers and 2 paraprofessionals. Not only has that reduced the number of rounds we can have per grade and increased class sizes (my sixth grader is now sitting in a math class with 39 students), but the cuts have also wrecked havoc with our master schedule. With fewer adults in the building, we don’t have enough coverage for lunch and recess and teachers are scrambling to teach multiple subjects across different grades. In order to keep our librarian, she now has to teach a course on top of her regular duties. Other teachers are split half-time between our school and another, so they are only in the building three out of six days and students have two different teachers for the same class. All this juggling looks “clean” on paper when it appears we “only” lost 4.5 educators, but the impact on students is much larger, despite the heroic efforts of the principal to make the changes as seamless as possible.
These cuts aren’t just affecting my children’s school. Last year, Pittsburgh Public Schools desperately cut programs across the city, spending $11.5 million less than the year before. But even after slashing almost 19% of its employees over the past five years, the district still estimates that it will be broke by 2016. That’s a tiny improvement over 2015, when the district formerly projected we would be bankrupt, but certainly not good news. [Post-Gazette, 3-22-13] The district is working on a strategic plan that will almost certainly include a proposal for closing more schools, echoing Philadelphia which has just announced it will shutter 23 more of its schools (while opening up more privately managed charter schools at the same time). [See “Philly Today, Pittsburgh Tomorrow”]
Think this is only a big city problem? Think again. The state just put Wilkinsburg and Aliquippa school districts on their financial watch list. Both Southwest, PA towns are struggling to pay their bills and Wilkinsburg will only get through this year on a new $3 million loan it was forced to take out. [Post-Gazette, 3-15-13] Of course, the state’s new “early warning system” designating districts as financially troubled seems to do nothing to actually help them. There is no recognition by Governor Corbett or the Department of Education of what these districts have in common: poverty and a large proportion of African American students.
The state also just added Reading, PA – the second poorest city in the country (it was first in 2011) – to its watch list. [New York Times, 9-26-11] And it added Steelton-Highspire school district near Harrisburg – which as the name suggests, is in an old industrial area – and also serves a large proportion of African American students. That school district just announced that it will eliminate pre-K and cut all Kindergarten to half days next school year. [PennLive, 3-21-13] Yes, read that sentence again. Districts are now forced to cut the very things we know work the best to help students. Meanwhile, the Allentown school board has just approved what it calls the “worst possible scenario,” eliminating all remaining art, library and physical education staff from its elementary schools. [Morning Call, 3-21-13] Check out this brave Allentown teacher who recently made this short video explaining the situation there:
Are you starting to see the connections here? High poverty school districts, towns suffering from post-industrial decline, school boards with limited ability to raise taxes (additionally hampered by state laws), and students of color being disproportionately affected by a growing list of cuts to absolutely essential education programs. No one in their right mind thinks we should be cutting early childhood education or Kindergarten. Can you imagine your child in an elementary school with no art, no library, and no gym?
Pennsylvania is becoming a dangerous place for kids and amphibians. Before we become boiled frogs, it’s time to leap out of that hot water and make some noise. Next Wednesday, April 10th, will be a great chance: plan to join EdVoters’ state-wide call-in-day and take a few minutes to contact your legislators. Can you help organize an event at your school or place of work? Here’s what we will be calling on the state legislature to do this year:
- Reinstate $270 million in funding to K-12 education in this year’s budget (and for the next 2 years – to restore the nearly $1 billion in state funding level cuts over a three year timetable).
- Put in place funding formulas that have a strategy for allocating dollars, working toward a permanent, rational funding formula. Formulas must account for the number of students, include “weights” for the additional costs for educating students with special needs (including students in poverty, gifted students and English language learners), and provide sustainable and predictable funding for districts.
- Begin to address formula and funding mechanism flaws in the way that charter schools are funded (a good formula will set rates appropriately and not pit groups of children against each other);
- They must also provide cost of living increases for special education (which has been flat funded for 6 straight years) and career-technical education;
- Develop a comprehensive plan to guarantee that the students in financially distressed districts have the resources necessary to meet the state’s academic standards.