On a recent Wednesday morning in Encinitas, my class of 34 10th graders was doing some independent reading. As the students read their S.E. Hinton novels or The Lord of the Rings or even the odd skateboard magazine, I circulated the room, stamping their homework with a smiling green cartoon snail. As I walked the room, my mind wandered to something I'd heard on the radio on the way to school.
I'd listened to news of a proposed $400 million cut to the state public-education budget. As a student teacher, I was hoping, after my current placement and the submission of my thesis, to find gainful employment as a teacher; the sudden lack of funds wouldn't make for a hospitable marketplace. But something was more important. I believed that the students had a right to know—and I had a duty to tell them—about policy decisions that affect them.
So, while the students were quietly flipping pages, I relied on a teacher's innate ability to improvise and mentally adjusted lesson plans, casting aside some introductory material on Camus' The Stranger and planning a classroom debate.
I wrote on the left side of the board: “The State of California may cut all California public education programs by 10% to help the current budget deficit of $14 billion. The public education budget of San Diego County is approximately $400 million.” I gave them some time to read it before instructing them to get out a half-sheet of paper and a pencil and, without talking to their neighbor or over-analyzing it, write a response to the information. I set the timer for seven minutes and said, “Go.” More than half of the brows in the class furrowed immediately as they scrambled to formulate their thoughts. After a minute or so of staggered starts, they were all writing, some furiously so.On Jan. 10, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger released a proposed budget that, in the face of a state shortfall of $14.5 billion, cut the education budget by $400 million for the current year, among other things. State revenue projections had been off by roughly $5 billion. It is highly unlikely that many school districts statewide would be able to weather such dramatic cuts without making substantial alterations to the educational process.
At San Dieguito Union High School District, where I student-taught and currently serve as a substitute, this means a mid-year cut of $30 per ADA (average daily attendance—the schools receive funding based on actual attendance records rather than enrollment), or roughly $350,000 for this relatively well-funded small district, whose budget hovers around $90 million. Granted, ADA for San Diego County—and California—is roughly $8,400 per student per year, but that's still less than the national per-student average of $9,000. Simply put, schools will be operating on less money than they were only a few years ago but still obligated to meet higher standards required in legislation like the No Child Left Behind Act.
Like in most industries, labor eats up much of the education budget, so in addition to cuts in programs and technology, people will lose their jobs. There has already been outrage directed at the nearly 20,000 pink slips received by teachers up and down the state.
School districts have already had to cope with a 6.5-percent cut in special-education funding in the current year; the amount to be cut from next year's education budget in addition to the emergency cut of $400 million is uncertain. Furthermore, all categorical funding—programs that fund classroom technology and support teacher development, for example—are also losing 6.5 percent from current-year levels. These programs don't receive money from general funds; they're paid for through strictly legislative channels. The effect that this will have on the overall quality of educational support for students is unquantifiable.When the students had a little under a minute left, I drew a large T-chart on the right of the board, the columns labeled “pro” and “con.” The timer beeped and as I said “pencils down,” I saw that every student had written something and many had nearly filled their pages, front and back. This was a relief—pro or con, at least they each had an opinion.
After some questions, clarifications on the scope of the deficit and what effect it has on the California economy, I prompted them to offer some reactions. Near the back of the class, Eric's hand darted up first. The cuts are ridiculous, he said. Many students nodded in agreement. I tried to redirect him. That may be so, I said, but first we have to evaluate the pros and cons of the argument before we can attack it, right? He agreed. Behind him, Miranda offered a pointed criticism: It's a bad thing because by spending less on education, people won't be as prepared for life later on. I nodded, writing, “People need education for successful lives” under the “con” heading.
Ryan, one of the quieter students, had his hand raised. With a bit of a mischievous grin, he asked what types of classes would be cut and what happens when they take away those funds? I kicked the question back to the class—what kind of classes would they cut? The students thought, then offered a list of responses: art, guitar making (yes, they offer guitar making there), fiction in film, home economics and support classes (sheltered learning environments for English-language learners or students with learning disabilities). Ryan declared that there were no important classes on that list. He said—and others echoed his point—that the classes that risked cancellation were largely electives. He instructed me to write, “no necessary classes affected” under the pro side, with another student quickly adding “financial responsibility” to the same column.
A group of students took offense and mounted a response that highlighted the virtues of electives. One particularly excited student who was ordinarily quiet mumbled “enrichment”—yes, these classes are not necessary, but they enrich the school experience.
After a thorough and at times heated debate, which lasted far longer than I had originally intended, the board was crammed full of notations and tabulations. In the course of the discussion, the topics had varied from the war in Iraq, which my supervising teacher Kerri had helped me artfully dodge, to alternate forms of education. One student even suggested that the county and the state should simply welsh on their debts. A few students argued that farm subsidies, although originating from the federal government, should somehow be reallocated to education. Others thought that the education system must simply deal with the cuts; as a part of the bureaucracy of public policy, it is ultimately subject to the decisions of legislators. One student was of the belief that government-required education was unconstitutional; a laissez faire model of education would be much more appropriate and cut costs. Lack of subtlety and practicality aside, the students had come up with a solid list of benefits and harms of the potential cuts. A few other students argued at some length that raising property taxes could certainly help finance education, an argument that's gaining some traction today. The budget proposal offered by Schwarzenegger essentially suspends 1988's Proposition 98, the “Classroom Instructional Improvement and Accountability Act,” which mandates a minimum level of funding for education. Prop. 98 was a response to 1978's Proposition 13, which lowered California property taxes, limiting the amount the state could spend on education. With a two-thirds majority, the Legislature can suspend Prop. 98 and appropriate funds for California's schools at their own discretion. Before the bell rang, marking the end of first period, I asked the students to turn in their half-sheet responses. I engaged my third-period 11th-grade class with the same activity, with similar results. That evening, I read and noted the students' reactions. Many of the students expressed outrage, not unlike Eric's initial reaction. There was a lot of empty or undirected vitriol, perhaps partially symptomatic of typical teenage angst. However, beyond the anger was a great deal of rational argument and levelheaded thought. A few students felt that in times of need, we all must sacrifice in order for society to keep working. More than a few students expressed disdain at the fluctuations in policy—sometimes we have a surplus; sometimes we're in debt—and a desire for politicians to get organized. In these personal reflections and others like them, it's easy to see the capability of school-aged children to grasp concepts involving society as a whole.
At the time of the class exercise, I knew very little beyond the possibility of a 10-percent cut to education and the rough number of $14.5 billion for the state deficit. I used that limited information to help create a productive class discussion. Given enough time, I could have heightened my understanding of the subject. I could have created handouts to give the students a better grasp. But that's not the way we consume news. We receive much of our news in itemized, compartmentalized portions, and only later do we see the full scope. And indeed, later I did learn more about the present predicament and the lasting effects of fiscal policy on education, but my reaction at the time was immediate, bringing a slice of the real world into the classroom and, hopefully, enriching the students' experience.
When I returned later as a substitute, I ran across a few of those students. After the usual banter about classes and homework and asking me what music I was listening to these days, one of them brought up the budget cuts again, mentioning that he heard about “some teachers in Chula Vista who were gonna lose their jobs.” One of his companions interrupted her cell-phone call. “That sucks,” she said.
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