WA supplemental budget harms its schools

Never mind that talk about what little free time I have; I want to write about the recent budget cuts here in Washington State. As usual, the poor and the young are paying the heaviest price for the cuts – particularly in this state, which has one of the most regressive tax structures in the country. I could compile a list of some of the more shocking cuts, but I want to focus on how the passage of the supplemental budget, the effects of which will be seen as soon as March 1st, could affect public education in Seattle and the rest of the state. (For an official rundown of said budget, click here.)

This supplemental budget, meant to close a deficit in excess of $1 billion, will affect the state’s public schools in a number of indirect ways. Immigrant families, whose children represent a significant percentage of the student body in many Washington public schools, have seemingly been sacrificed on the altar of fiscal responsibility. The elimination of the Children’s Health Program will mean an end to medical care for about 27,000 students – most of whom are thought to be undocumented – in the state. It does not take a very deep analysis to understand how a lack of medical care might have deleterious effects on a student’s performance in school. More obviously, it could lead to increased absences and therefore an even greater likelihood of falling behind grade-level. Less obviously, it could prevent participation in school athletics, for instance, due to a lack of the necessary vaccines. In short, it could impede both the academic and social success of many students in Washington. For students from immigrant families, this could only compound the challenges already faced by that demographic, challenges that are inherent when school culture is, in most cases, much different than home culture.

The supplemental budget will also eliminate a program that provided food assistance to people who did not qualify for federal aid. This will almost certainly mean more students coming to school hungry. I have little to add about this, especially because the multifarious effects of hunger on student achievement have been well documented.

Yet those are only some of the indirect ways that the supplemental budget will affect many of the state’s public schools. What direct influence will it have? In my mind, there are two important answers: first of all, measures taken by the state to limit inequity in educational funding will take a hit in the form of a 6.3% reduction in levy equalization payments. These payments provide much-needed money to schools in neighborhoods with lower property-tax revenues (i.e. poor and working-class communities). Due to past and present institutional racism – in housing and employment, in particular — the cut in these payments will therefore disproportionately affect schools that serve communities of color, as well. By reducing these levy equalization payments, school districts that already have less funding per pupil will be hit harder than wealthier districts. (As of 2008, Washington ranked 39th in the country in terms of its funding gap between wealthier and poorer school districts.) The result is that we are pushed further from the realization of a just and equitable public school system; not only are we failing the Brown v. Board of Education decision, we do not even meet the oft-derided goals of Plessy v. Ferguson, which at least called for equality with its segregation. These days, we seem only to have the latter.

The second important piece comes in a bundle (a sad, sad bundle). In the politically charged climate of US education today, there has been much talk about increasing teacher accountability. More and more, standardized test scores are justified as barometers of a teacher’s effectiveness in the classroom. Yet, as we continue to scrutinize teachers more and more, we also continue to give them less and less. The supplemental budget will cut teachers’ cost-of-living allowances, while simultaneously ending a program aimed at reducing class sizes and also putting in jeopardy programs such as the Washington Reading Corps, which provides essential reading tutoring to many students. The budget sends a strong message to teachers: “You must do more, get less for it, and still achieve the same results!” It’s like putting hurdles on the track for the 100-meter dash and expecting the sprinters to finish with the same time. If they don’t, somebody will inevitably film a documentary about “sprinter accountability.”

Teachers are feeling this. At a recent holiday party, I spoke with a third-grade teacher of nearly thirty years. She expressed her frustration at hearing someone like Bill Gates talk about the failures of public schools, and in the meantime seeing her class size increase, the curriculum constantly change, and the support system for her students slowly erode. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. People talk about failing public schools while success is made less achievable by means of budget cuts just like these. In the end, it is the teachers who receive a large share of the blame. Spend some time talking to them and many of them will tell you – they feel like they’re under attack. That’s certainly what I heard at the holiday party. “It’s just crazy,” the third-grade teacher confided as we surveyed the dessert table. “It’s not what it used to be. I’ve taught for so long, and I’ve never seen anything like this.”

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