April 1 in Chicago has come and gone. Now what? Teachers have taken to the streets to demonstrate their frustration. The district faces more furlough days to cut spending. The state still does not have a budget.
In the budget crisis that is crippling our schools, nothing has changed but the date on the calendar. All year, state, city and district leaders have mentioned the tough decisions they’re making because of funding, but I am left wondering if they are impacted as deeply as my students and I are each day. As a teacher at a school where student achievement has been climbing, I worry that these cuts are chipping away at students’ and teachers’ hard-won gains. I see a number of threats to this progress:
At the school where I teach, we are proud to have raised our School Quality Rating from a Level 2 to a Level 1 last year. While we would like to be celebrating and capitalizing on these gains, we are instead focused on almost $600,000 in cuts at our school alone. Fewer adults mean large class sizes—today about 30 students per classroom—that substantially diminishes our ability to monitor how students are doing and meet their unique learning needs.
The truth is that it’s far more than ballooning class sizes. Budget cuts are preventing us from offering the same academic and behavior incentives for students we’ve had in years past. We’ve lost parent nights, community engagement efforts and assemblies. While teachers often spend out-of-pocket to make ends meet, we cannot make up our school’s $600,000 deficit.
These cuts also mean we’ve had to sacrifice hands-on learning experiences that we know are crucial to student learning. For example, my second-grade students are learning about how living and nonliving things interact in habitats to sustain life. It would be great to give students an opportunity to build a 3D-habitat structure using art supplies to showcase what they’ve learned—it would also be expensive. As a teacher, I’m faced with the dilemma of shelling out almost $150 I know will not be reimbursed, or substituting a drawing project that will not engage my students as well.
In years past, we have been able to offer resources to parents to support students’ learning at home—blocks, disks, geometric shapes and tools, technological resources and other options. This year, we are unable to update classroom resources and cannot afford to send home the resources parents are requesting. It does not bode well when schools cannot afford the literal building blocks of student learning.
Investing in Teachers
Chicago Public Schools' budget struggles also mean that the promised annual raises and promotions for additional coursework and trainings are not being honored. Last year, in addition to teaching full time, I attended classes two nights a week and completed roughly 10 hours of schoolwork weekly to attain a master’s in education.
I am a better teacher because of strategies I learned in my coursework, such as infusing literacy into math and science instruction. I decided to pursue my master’s despite the $11,000 out-of-pocket because it was an important investment not only in my students’ learning, but also in my career. The promised $4,000 pay raise would help offset my costs in the years to come. But when pay increases are not honored and incentives to grow professionally go unsupported, we harm teachers’ professional development, and ultimately student learning.
The charged rhetoric between the district, state and union also impacts school morale. When everyone demands you do more with less, it’s harder to do our jobs and to keep students motivated. Pervasive negativity makes even great teachers question continuing in this profession and district.
The conversation on all sides needs to be more respectful and less accusatory. I honestly believe stakeholders want to solve these issues, but their approaches are often not constructive. The antagonistic rhetoric is overshadowing a chance to collaborate on a solution.
Finding a Long-Term Solution
Teachers are happy to take on their share of the burden and be part of the solution, but the truth is that schools, teachers and students are already shouldering more than our fair share in lost supplies, educational opportunities and promised pay raises. We cannot go through another school year like this. Stakeholders in Illinois and Chicago should rally around a long-term solution that rewrites the state funding formula to ensure districts like Chicago Public Schools receive their fair share, that works toward sustainable pension reform, and that declares a TIF surplus as an immediate stopgap measure to address the budget deficit. Help us teachers and students focus our energies once more on what really matters–student achievement and learning.