Trump Administration

School Districts Just Like Mine Are Balancing Budgets on the Backs of Kids

At 10:00 a.m. last Wednesday, students and educators across the country—including those at the school in which I teach—walked out of their buildings and observed 17 minutes of silence, one for each victim of the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida. While the fight to protect our students from gun violence is vital and raw, let’s not forget the small tragedies that our kids are confronted with daily: overcrowded classrooms, ill-equipped teachers, outdated curriculum, and tone-deaf decision-makers too far removed from real students to offer little more than tepid excuses and sympathetic platitudes. Without decisive, collective action, these injustices—played out over years and decades—will inevitably worsen. Today, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is selling the Trump administration’s 2019 Department of Education budget. Given both the administration’s past signaling and DeVos’ personal politics, public schools around the country are bracing for cuts both broad and deep. Although state tax dollars fund the lion’s share of school expenditures, federal dollars are critical because they are explicitly earmarked for equity efforts including special education and Title I programming for poverty-impacted schools. Equally as important, federal policy sets the tone for state and local bodies. Last week, the Minneapolis Public School District concluded its budget tie-out process; at week’s end, already-strapped schools were asked to cut deeper into wounds that each year inch nearer to bone. Hundreds of educators around the district—myself included—were told that their positions have been eliminated or reduced in the service of reversing a $33 million budget deficit. Those whose jobs remain intact face the prospect of having to do much more with much less. At my school, class sizes will balloon to 37, while at the same time, support staff will be reduced. Despite our arts-focused identity, our kids will have fewer music, theater, and visual art electives, and no options at all for health or PE. We’re not alone. Neighboring schools will lose entire content area programs, while others face steep cuts to discretionary funding for supplies, technology and enrichment. For a district so ostensibly committed to educational equity, these cuts seem egregiously inequitable. The schools that will be hardest hit will be those that cannot supplement their coffers with revenue from local property taxes, or have their financial fall broken by the sturdy net of an influential PTA.

These Cuts Harm Children

For all the pain that will be felt by educators and adult staff, these cuts ultimately harm children. This is no hyperbole. Your student is harmed when her school cannot adequately staff the health office or building security team. Your child with special needs is harmed when the service hours he receives are compromised by his special education teacher’s ever-increasing caseload. Your kindergartener is harmed when she is served expired milk, just as your college-bound senior is harmed when he cannot speak to a counselor about scholarship opportunities. I ask the school board, would you make the same decisions if your own children were in these schools? A school district must be financially sustainable in order to serve kids in the long run. This is true. But all across the country, districts just like mine are balancing budgets on the backs of children. Contrary to what some policymakers might believe, schools are not businesses, and students are not widgets, interchangeable units whose value is measured in revenue and cost. Though they may genuinely feel that the cuts they are making are difficult but necessary, I challenge them to defend their policies after spending even one day in a poverty-impacted school, listening to our kids’ concerns, and looking directly down the growing chasm between what they need to pursue their dreams and what they are being offered. Those close to me have heard me say repeatedly that budgets are statements of values. If this is true, then I ask every parent, educator, and voter to consider whether or not your district’s values with respect to your child’s education reflect your own. If the answer is no, then call your school board members, petition your superintendent, organize your school communities in protest, or support candidates at the local and state level who promise to fully fund public education and are willing to radically reform our regressive tax code in order to do so. We cannot continue committing these small, daily injustices against our most vulnerable kids. They deserve better.
Christopher Mah is a first-year English teacher in the Minneapolis Public School District and member of Educators for Excellence-Minnesota. He blogs at Real Talk EDU.

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