Teachers’ Strikes Showed Desperate Need for Funding: Will Congress and State Legislatures Respond?

In walkouts and strikes all year long—from West Virginia to Kentucky to Colorado to Oklahoma to Arizona to California—teachers have been crying out for essentials their schools cannot afford. Two weeks ago in its annual update on the fiscal condition of America’s K-12 public schools, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities confirmed teachers’ concerns. In 24 states, combined state and local funding for public schools (adjusted for inflation) remains below what was being spent in 2008, before the Great Recession.

We are in the midst of the federal and state budget season, and too often the conversation isn’t really about what public schools need. After all, that would be way too expensive. Instead of a conversation about what is required to serve our children well, we hear debates in Congress and in our legislatures about the size of the slices in a budgetary pie that is smaller after years of tax cuts. Sometimes public schools merely get what is called “a budgetary residual”—what’s left after lawmakers fund higher priorities. This year teachers have been reminding us that our children ought to be our priority.

Budget discussions are just beginning in my state, Ohio. The Governor’s new budget flat-funds K-12 spending except for one laudable line-item—an additional $250 million to help school districts provide wraparound social services for children and families in poverty.  The amount would grow to $300 million in the second year of the biennium. But the Governor’s proposed budget won’t address Ohio’s inadequate and very unequal school funding formula. Last summer, when he was interviewed by Jim Siegel for the Columbus Dispatch, Ohio’s school finance expert Howard Fleeter explained that Ohio’s funding formula is failing to support the state’s poorest school districts—the ones the state brands with “F” ratings and has begun to punish by seizing them and taking over their governance. After documenting Ohio’s underfunding of its poorest districts, Fleeter commented: “The formula itself is kind of just spraying money in a not-very-targeted way.”

Ohio’s Democratic legislators responded last Friday.  They suggest that the state should cost-out the price of a quality education across the state’s 612 school districts and then figure out how to raise the revenue to pay for it. Like many other states, Ohio is in such a hole that the disparity between what the state is spending today and what it would cost to provide the recommended level of services will be a shocking amount if the Democrats succeed with their plan. Let’s hope they do.

What are these essentials that too many of America’s public schools are missing?

From state to state this year, teachers have protested an epidemic shortage of support staff like counselors, social workers, school psychologists and nurses.  This month the American Civil Liberties Union examined the shortage of support professionals nationally across American public schools: “Our report reveals that schools fortunate enough to have mental health professionals are still grossly understaffed. Professional standards recommend at least one counselor and one social worker for every 250 students, and at least one nurse and one psychologist for every 750 students and every 700 students respectively. These staffing recommendations reflect a minimum requirement.”  Education Week‘s Evie Blad sums up what the ACLU found: “No state met the recommendation of one social worker for every 250 students…. Four states meet the recommended ratio of one school psychologist for every 700 students. About 33 percent of schools reported that they did not have a nurse on staff.”

In their protests and strikes this year, teachers have been very clear about their schools’ greatest need: Teachers have asked their legislatures to provide enough money for their schools to hire more teachers and, consequently, reduce the size of their classes. A recent newsletter from the National Education Policy Center backs up striking teachers’ demand. NPEC’s newsletter summarizes the research literature: “Smaller classes in early grades are associated with better test scores…. Smaller classes in early grades are associated with better long-term outcomes…. Class size reduction helps, even if classes remain large…. Class size reductions make an even bigger difference for experienced teachers.  Although all teachers benefit, on average, from class size reductions, experienced teachers are better able to take advantage of the smaller class sizes.”

At least one member of Congress is trying to keep this discussion alive.  Rachel M. Cohen reported last week that Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) just introduced a bill to allocate $2 billion in federal competitive grants to encourage school districts to lower class size in the primary grades. Cohen explains that, while federal Title II dollars can be used to hire additional teachers, many school districts have instead been using these funds for professional development.  Cohen quotes Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters: “As the teacher strikes reveal, and data shows, budgets and class sizes still haven’t recovered (from the recession)… Increases in class size have severely damaged the quality of education for all children in affected schools, but especially disadvantaged students and students of color, who see twice the benefit from smaller classes than the average student.”  Senator Merkley’s bill is primarily designed to reduce class size in districts serving concentrations of poor children. It would further require that school districts receiving the grants report back on whether smaller classes affected teacher retention and turnover, and whether the smaller classes affected chronic absenteeism and school discipline.

Early in March, the American Federation of Teachers launched a nationwide campaign to keep attention focused on what striking teachers have helped us see are acute school resource shortages across the country.  For U.S. News, Lauren Camera reports: “The American Federation of Teachers, the 1.7 million-member teachers union, announced a major education initiative… aimed at pressing lawmakers in state capitals and Congress to increase funding for public schools and universities.”  AFT is demanding full funding for Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education at the promised federal level: 40 percent of the cost of these programs. The federal government has chronically underfunded these federal responsibilities—never once covering even 20 percent of IDEA funding—even as it names educational support of poor children and disabled children as federal priorities.

Challenging the President’s proposed budget for education—which increases the federal Charter Schools Program but flat-funds Title I, the IDEA, the Office for Civil Rights and Head Start—AFT President Randi Weingarten describes the purpose of AFT’s Fund Our Future Campaign: “After a decade of neglect and austerity in our country’s schools, the American people have had enough—and want a reordering of the country’s priorities to focus on things that make their families’ lives better.  And that starts with our children and sustainable investments in pubic schools, colleges, infrastructure and healthcare. That is the aim of Fund Our Future, the AFT’s campaign to demand (that) those in power invest in our public schools and in the resources students need to succeed—particularly children of color, children with special needs, children who are vulnerable and children who live in poverty… In an ideal world, our elected leaders would use the country’s economic resources to improve people’s lives—to make the American people healthier, better educated and more secure; to promote their potential and create opportunity where it has been denied, and to make the vulnerable among us less so.”

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