By MARCELLA S. KREITER - United Press International
July 4, 2010 -- As the summer heats up, school districts across the United States are trying to shore up budgets and realign programs pressured by gaps in state aid and other recession-triggered shortfalls.
Some 300,000 public school personnel nationwide -- more than half of them teachers -- received pink slips before the end of the school year, and though some likely will be retained thousands likely won't be seeing the inside of a classroom again for some time.
The National Education Association estimates there were 3.23 million elementary and secondary teachers in the 2008-09 school year.
What will the cuts mean for schoolchildren? Nothing good, says Floyd K. Morris Jr., president of Children's Futures, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation non-profit in Trenton, N.J.
"It's going to drop us further behind a lot of other countries," Morris said in a recent interview. "We're probably investing a lot fewer resources than China, France and other European countries. It's not good for the United States on a number of levels."
Most at risk are early childhood programs and extracurricular activities, Morris said.
"Poor districts are going to be most affected. They're struggling to begin with," Morris said. "They're going to have to be very creative."
The American Federation of Teachers issued a statement sharply critical of congressional Republicans for holding up state aid that would have helped mitigate cuts resulting from decreased state aid to schools.
"You have to hand it to the Republican minority in the Senate -- they stay on message no matter how much harm they're doing to their own constituents," the AFT said after Republicans blocked the extension of federal unemployment benefits and other emergency spending.
So far, pleas from educators have fallen on deaf ears. A delegation of NEA members from California, Indiana, Illinois and North Carolina traveled to Washington last month to urge Congress to pass the Education Jobs Fund as part of the emergency jobs bill.
California schools have lost $17 billion in funding in the last two years, said David Sanchez, president of the California Teachers Association. John Seybold of Madera, Calif., said in his district alone 160 teachers have been laid off in the last two years and those still on the payroll took six furlough days to save jobs and avoid increases in classroom size, which currently stand at 38 in high schools and 28 in the lower grades. Sixty more received pink slips before the end of the school year.
Brianna Clegg of Stockton, Calif., recently received a Teacher of Excellence award. That same day she found a pink slip in her mailbox.
"We are closing in quickly on the end of the fiscal year, and it's incomprehensible that our children are being forced to bear the brunt of the nation's economic woes," NEA President Van Roekel said. "Enough is enough. The time to speak up for education and kids is now."
The latest Detroit schools budget increases class sizes, closes special education classrooms and phases out the district's emergency financial manager's job. In Illinois, Gov. Pat Quinn cut $241 million from the budget for elementary and secondary education for the fiscal year that began Thursday.
In March, Kansas City schools Superintendent John Covington announced plans to shutter half the districts' schools, eliminating 700 jobs to save $50 million.
Morris said districts are going to have to take action themselves and perhaps take a page from private schools, mounting fundraising efforts.
"Some schools are starting to charge for after-school enrichment activities," Morris said. "There are going to have to be much greater efforts to involve civic organizations that are willing to partner in different ways with the school districts. We have to make those partnerships happen. I think those schools are going to have to look at being more entrepreneurial."
Even so, it's unclear whether schools can make up the shortfalls, he said, adding it's likely districts are going to have to go back to teachers and renegotiate contracts to eliminate annual pay increases.
Another thing that will have to be rethought is the emphasis on standardized testing. Morris said he doesn't think such testing will go away anytime soon, but more emphasis needs to be placed on the skills students will need to succeed. The tests, he said, have "depersonalized" education and created a mismatch between what society's needs are and what is being taught in the school system.
"Soft skills aren't gotten by making sure a kid can add or subtract," Morris said. "But those are the kinds of activities, are the very things, that seem to go first when you see efforts to reduce costs.
"Not enough attention is being paid to families that are struggling. Education is largely tied to our economy. We have not figured out a strong enough set of policies that deal with the fact that we have many more families today in single-parent homes. The number is approaching the number of married families.
"Child care is necessary and we're not investing as much as we should. We're seeing the ramifications of children spending less time in the presence of adults … who can nurture, providing quality time in intimate settings. These things have to happen from birth. We have to get back to what makes a strong family so we can raise productive citizens for the next generation."