I’ve been laid off today with all of the employees of my school district, and, by proxy, all of the students in my school district. The school doors are locked. Do not enter. Sorry, we are temporarily closed. We do not have enough money in the coffers to pay for a full school year, so we’re cutting days and cutting pay and cutting another 6 hours of educational experience for the children in our community. There are, I think, 8 furlough days scheduled for this school year and talk of 10 to 14 for next year.
Many students might be happy to have another day off–but I’m sure there’s a great number, too, feeling a bit slighted. I think most people, especially parents of the younger ones, are inconvenienced and annoyed by this state of affairs, and some might be outraged, but there’s a pervasive feeling of helplessness about it. What can we do? People go to the state capital with signs. Some people write letters to their legislators. Others talk of having teach-ins in public places to raise awareness. I’m writing a little blog entry. Not sure what effect any of this has. If the money is not there, it’s not there, right? I’m no economist. I am not knowledgable enough about how governments receive and spend their money to offer any kind of explanation or solution. I don’t know whether or not they have mismanaged or misappropriated school funds, about whether there are less deserving programs receiving money that should go to schools, about whether there is a path toward additional revenue that our elected officials are ignoring or refusing to try. Would a sales tax solve the funding woes in Oregon’s public school system? Would voters ever go for that? Ultimately, the community has to decide how important it is to educate our young ones, and then, I suppose, elect people into office who can find a way to pay for it.
Are students performing less well, are they dumber, or less educated overall for the want of 8 to 14 more days of school? It’s hard to say. What’s undeniable, though, is that something is being sacrificed: the reading of another book, the introduction of another important concept or entire unit in math, an entire decade of history glossed over or missed altogether, an important aspect of second language grammar they will need for their progress next year, and, perhaps most importantly, the experience of coming together in a room with peers from their community to talk about, read about, and create or discover important things. For teachers, it looks something like this–last year we had not a single day for staff development. While the federal and state department of education, our leaders in our district, and our administrative team are talking about new reforms, new assessments, high stakes testing, adopting the Common Core Standards, in short, more and higher expectations, we are being provided with precious little resources to be able to rise to the occasion. So we do the best we can with what we have and hope for better days.
But here’s something to think about, at least on the federal level:
What I was surprised to discover, however, after thinking about these shocking numbers for quite a while now, is that in actual fact, the United States Government spends more on education than they do on the military!* That doesn’t, by any means, make the incredible imbalance in military spending okay; it does mean that you can’t say, if you’re just thinking about numbers of dollars, that the U.S. underspends other nations on education. But while we outspend everybody on the planet on this account also, and while, according to the University of Southern California, we have an impressive 99% literacy rate, we are in something like 9th or 10th place worldwide in science and math. And you have to be living under a rock not to know, that despite our good work, there are–what Jonathan Kozol called–savage inequalities in our school system country-wide and within states. I believe that it’s true, generally speaking, that our most impoverished communities have the worst schools. I also know there are exceptions–Deborah Meier has done phenomenal work in these kinds of schools, as have others. So, perhaps, it’s not at all about how much money is spent–but about how governments and school districts spend the money they have. But maybe far more important than that, what kind of programs are in place for kids, what kind of teachers are in the classroom, and what kind of learning communities are being built inside schools?
I’ll include this graphic here because it’s surprising and important, but also because it’s one of the prettiest info graphics I’ve ever seen.
I feel so fortunate and lucky to work in this district, at this high school, with this staff, and with these administrators. In my entire career I have worked in this same place and over my entire career I have found it to be a respectful, collegial, lively, safe, and invigorating place to work. Our student population is as diverse now I suppose as any other suburban high school population–in some ways more diverse culturally than in the gentrified neighborhoods of Portland. And I have found in that student population a consistently high number of really superb examples of humanity. Each furlough day, to me, is just another day on which this incredible community cannot do the work it needs to do, the work of growing the hearts and minds of the young people who will inherit the wonders and challenges of our future.
*This 809.6 billion dollars on Education is not all Federal money. My understanding is that this figure is a composite of Federal, State, and Local funds. So, yeah, this is how much $ government agencies spend a year on education–but the Federal budget alone pays for the Military. Something else to consider, perhaps.