Inside Education

What budget cuts really mean Students and teachers returned to the classroom this fall facing the reality of uncertain economic times.

October 29, 2009  | 6 min read

Inside Education

 

Students and teachers returned to the classroom this fall facing the reality of uncertain economic times. Alumni educators offer an up-close-and-personal look at hot topics in education today.

Robert Estrada (MA ’98, MS ’03), MIDDLE SCHOOL PRINCIPAL: There are many ways the cuts directly affect students, teachers, and parents. We usually offer summer school, but couldn’t this year. Students lost a great opportunity to get a head start in curriculum and/or remediate grade-level standards if they finished the year weak.

There is also the loss of personnel. When there is one less teacher, paraprofessional, counselor, or assistant principal, the student-to-resource ratio increases. The increase in the student-to-adult resource creates less of an opportunity for one-to-one interactions like teaching, coaching, re-teaching, counseling, and program services.

Parents are also affected because there are fewer services available that will help them navigate through the school system. Oftentimes, the school serves as the first stop in parent support in their child’s educational journey. Parents ask for tutoring services, teacher conferences, counseling support, or services for their at-risk student. In many instances these services are cut when budgets are affected.

Joaquin Hernandez (Ms ’02), CHARTER SCHOOL PRINCIPAL: On our campus, we have decided to cut some programs and some “extras” so we can maintain our teacher-to-student ratios. We were not able to upgrade classroom technology this year but it meant we were able to keep all our teachers. This year we are asking students to provide their own lined paper and other basic materials. Parents will have to pay a little out-of-pocket costs for some supplies, but nothing too significant. We will still be able to help those families who need our help. Teachers will have to make do without as many luxuries as we have been able to provide in the past, like abundant copy paper and copies on the Xerox machine.

Geoff Yantz (Ms ’96, Edd ’01), SUPERINTENDENT: Fortunately this year, 2009-2010, we’re receiving federal stimulus funds. Those are helping us to survive the downturn. We’ve experienced cuts to some programs, increased class size slightly, and we’ve had to reduce administrators and support staff as well. For the most part, we’re still able to offer a wide range of electives. We still have music. It would have been far more significant if we didn’t have the stimulus funds. If everything holds true, what we’ll experience in 2010-2011 will have a significant impact. We’re braced and ready for more reductions to occur.

Linda Edmond (Ms ’88), ELEMENTARY SCHOOL PRINCIPAL: We have fewer teachers, more students, and classes are very crowded. Our students are our first priority, so we hope they aren’t feeling our frustrations. Educators can do with so little, creatively. Teachers are asked to do so much more, like site and district committee work, training, etc. They have fewer district-supplied materials. Teachers are spending more of their money on their classrooms to make up for the things they can’t have and they feel they need. The state is very late letting districts know what their funding is each year. Parents are affected because we rely on fundraisers and their donations—of not just money but time, too, as volunteers.

Bill Watkins (’62, EdD ’87), SCHOOL BOARD MEMBER AND FORMER SUPERINTENDENT: The primary difference will probably be fewer teachers and aids per student, and each school district will deal with it individually and differently.

Everyone I know wants to keep the cut as far from the classroom as possible, but this is a people business. We don’t produce a product. We don’t have a large amount of money tied up in machinery and that kind of thing. Most of the money in a school district is tied up in people—teachers, administrators, support staff. You can cut books, cut paper, but eventually if it’s bad enough, it’s going to affect the classroom.

Historically, back to the great teachers like Socrates, one of the great benefits of education is people working with people, just having the ability to talk and work with another human being. Kids are eager to learn, teachers are eager to teach, and that, at its core, doesn’t cost money. We’ll all learn to live with what our means are. It may not be the best, and we may lose out on some things, but the human side is still there—really fine teachers working with students.


RESOURCEFULNESS, DEDICATION, AND INGENUITY

Estrada: Teachers are dedicated to their profession. In times of crisis they take on the challenge to do whatever it takes in order to provide an instructional practice that is effective and engaging. This, at times, does not cost money. It does cost time. The teachers often spend more time collaborating with each other so that students can receive a well-planned engaging lesson that is rigorous and relevant to them. When tough times come, teachers work together and get through it with success and positive results.

Watkins: Certainly the Internet has opened up tremendous learning opportunities. I walk into a library and I see kids on computers finding information immediately. Strategies for non-paper have really opened up a whole new door for teachers to reduce waste and save money.

Edmond: Teachers are working harder because they are doing with less. They don’t want their students to feel the losses due to the cutbacks. They use the Internet much more to get free materials and ideas. They are looking for grants. One of my teachers applied for a grant last year and received a new classroom library. She was only one of two to receive this grant in our district. Most teachers will always set high standards for student achievement no matter what the crisis is. I do a lot of fundraising to ensure our students and teachers having everything they need to be successful. Our parents donate materials and supplies at the beginning of the year and throughout the year (Xerox paper, erasers, pencils, etc.). This frees up my site budget to purchase curricular materials that the district can’t afford. We also have much more parent involvement; that’s a positive.

Yantz: We’ve reviewed every contract we have and renegotiated it. We’ve gone through all our software programs and reduced electricity consumption by 10 percent. We’re trying to use technology as much as possible to communicate to families instead of using the postal service. This has forced us to go through every single line item in the budget, critique it, analyze it, and find a more cost-effective way to maintain high quality. Just one example is our back-to-school packet. It used to be a one-inch thick packet of forms, permission slips, handbooks, emergency information—you name it. Now we’ve made the whole thing electronic.


BECOMING AND STAYING A TEACHER

Watkins: Although this is a very difficult time financially, it’s also a wonderful time to get into the classroom and be part of the educational process. We are hiring; people retire, jobs open up. Young, new teachers are just as excited to come into the classroom as I was 38 years ago. And the strategies they have now are much better than when I started. Like all professions, we’re becoming better at what we do. To be part of a teaching staff working with these new teachers, helping them accomplish their goals, is really rewarding. I believe that education is one of the finest professions one could ever want to get into.

Yantz: Going into the teaching field has never been more important. It’s never been a more important time for quality people to pursue education as a career. For one, this isn’t a permanent situation. The economy will improve and jobs will be available. We are anticipating a significant number of teachers who will be retiring, which will open up a number of positions. There’s also beginning to be a renaissance in the field of education right now. It’s changing more rapidly than ever, and we need extraordinary people to contribute to the development and shape of education in the future.

Edmond: We are losing so many creative young people to other careers. This is a great loss to our profession. My biggest concern as an educational leader is how to keep staff morale up. I am their cheerleader and I try to do everything and anything I can to ensure they have what they need to do what they do best—teach.

Hernandez: Teaching used to be the fall-back job: if you couldn’t find a job anywhere else, you could teach. Not anymore. Teaching is a profession, which means we need professionals. To enter this profession and stick around, you need to be interested in students, their growth and progress, and their families.


WHAT'S IMPORTANT IN EDUCATION TODAY

Hernandez: The most important issue in high school education, to me, is the drop-out rate. Although at my high school our drop-out rate is less than 1 percent, it still concerns me because I see how it affects families in our community. It is my belief that we have to reevaluate the high school program and make some major changes to it so that it better suits the students of today, not the students of 50 years ago when the model was created.

Edmond: Parents that can afford private school are taking their children out of the public school system. They are being asked to do more and more to help the public schools stay afloat. In a few years I believe our high school drop-out rate may increase due to larger and larger class size and less actual “teacher time.” As hard as teachers work, that will be devastating.

Watkins: More and more parents want their kids to go to colleges and universities, and the requirements over the years continue to go up. It would be exciting to hear what school districts are doing at the upper elementary and middle school level to prepare kids to get into the colleges and universities they want. I think high school is too late. You’re already on a track, so to speak, and it’s difficult to catch up. So if higher education is the goal, let’s hear about how they’ll be ready for it—both students and parents.

Estrada: Schools who have the magic formula are often unique and isolated. Schools who have implemented a reform in their educational practice are often left out. I really wish schools that have shown success and accomplishment would be featured more.