Economy could take toll on education
Between rising foreclosures, prices and unemployment, and falling property values and inflation-adjusted wages, American schools face a serious challenge to the treasured notion of a free public education.
Add unknowns such as state and federal funding, and 21st century schools are being squeezed like a grape in a nutcracker. This vital public issue is being addressed by the Presidential candidates, but too often overlooked in the media attention to general economic woes.
“Food and fuel costs are going up and school revenues are not,” said Anne Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association, talking to the International Herald Tribune. “We’re in a recession, and it’s having a dramatic impact on schools.”
Nationally, record numbers of kids are poor enough to qualify for free meals or are homeless.
Locally, Peoria School District 150 won’t find out the extent of that situation until later this month, according to Stacey Shangraw, District 150’s director of marketing and public relations.
“Applications for free and reduced lunch are not due until October, therefore this data is not yet available.”
Under the National School Lunch Program, children in a family of four whose parents earn less than $39,220 a year qualify for a subsidized 30-cent breakfast and 40-cent lunch. If the parents earn less than $27,560, the children qualify for free meals.
Nationwide, almost 15 million students qualified for free lunches last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Bush administration’s budget projects that another 280,000 students will be eligible this year.
Schools from coast to coast are trying to cope with higher costs for heating and fuel, and cuts in state and local funding by raising meal prices for students who can pay, reorganizing or limiting bus routes and travel, and cutting staff. District 150 isn’t unusual, but has largely avoided severe cutbacks.
District milk prices are up 33% and bus drivers have been told to turn off vehicles rather than let engines idle, for instance.
“This year we opened a satellite location for our bus fleet,” Shangraw said. “This houses buses serving the Manual attendance area.”
Elsewhere, schools in Minnesota, Louisiana and other states have adopted four-day school weeks and reduced field trips.
Thirty-one states had budget gaps totaling $40 billion, according to a report by the National Conference of State Legislatures, and many had cut school financing.
With Illinois’ General Assembly still wrangling a state budget, it’s unclear how local schools will be affected – although Shangraw chooses to be optimistic.
“We hope the state will increase funding, recognizing that education is an investment in our future,” she said. “And we know that area legislators are working to protect schools.”
In Kentucky, Louisville’s Jefferson County school system is dealing with 7.7% of its students being homeless – an increase from 7,300 in 2007 to 7,600 out of 98,000 students. Peoria’s system is about 15% of that size, and hopes that its homeless and poverty problem also will be less. Unlike school districts in California, Florida and Michigan, where hundreds of teachers were laid off for economic reasons, most area districts have escaped that move.
Meanwhile, U.S. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) are offering different approaches for how the federal government can help U.S. schools – and American students.
Taking the GOP line, McCain stresses parental empowerment and school, proposing to make it easier for families whose children are in substandard schools to leave them and take a proportionate amount of funding with them, whether enrolling in some other public school, a private school or even a tutoring service. Obama’s emphasis is on targeted investment –increased funding to help place skilled teachers into high-need schools, boost charter-school options, and assist early childhood development to make up for achievement gaps.
“The key difference is that Obama puts the emphasis on improving the public schools, working through the schools themselves,” said Jack Jennings, president of the nonprofit research group Center on Education Policy, talking to the Christian Science Monitor. “McCain believes in outside pressures through the free market.”
During the Republican National Convention, McCain criticized Obama for being too cozy with teachers unions, but Obama – although endorsed by the major teachers unions – supports stricter accountability and merit pay, with the unions oppose.
In fact, this summer, Obama in a speech about education in Ohio said, “[We] need to give every child the assurance that they’ll have the teacher they need to be successful. Teachers who are doing a poor job, they’ve got to get extra support, but if they don’t improve, then they have to be replaced.” Such comments sparked boos from union members.
Obama’s education-oriented policy ideas include increasing funding for Head Start and Early Head start programs; investing in teaching, mentoring of teachers and compensation based on achievements and school assignments; doubling the funding for good charter schools and after-school 21st Century Learning Centers; and setting up a $200 million grant program for districts lengthening their school days or school years, and expanding tax credits for low-income families to afford child care.
McCain’s policy proposals include offering states incentives to recruit K-12 teachers from the top 25% of their college classes; offering bonuses for teachers who accept jobs in challenging schools and who raise student achievement scores; spending $1 billion on expanded online learning, “virtual” schools, “digital passport” scholarships to help low-income students enroll in online courses and supporting state efforts to grow online offerings; and adding certified tutoring providers for schools that fail to meet federal standards.
While the Bush administration seeks a bailout for big lenders and Wall Street, Main Street schools, their students, their parents and the communities who’ll be on the hook for the bill wait for their share of assistance.
– Bill Knight is an award-winning journalist who teaches at Western Illinois University. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.