Marian Wright Edelman
Once upon a time, America professed to believe in a strong public education system. While we still talk about public education as the great equalizer that can offer a pathway out of poverty, the nation is falling far short in assuring millions of poor children, especially those of color, upward mobility.
As if children and families were not suffering enough during this economic downturn, too many states are choosing to balance budgets on the backs of children. They're shifting more costs away from government onto children and families who have fewer means to bear them. It's shameful.
Of the 46 states that publish data in a manner allowing historical comparisons, 37 are providing less funding per student to local school districts this school year than they provided last year, and 30 are providing less funding than they did four years ago. Seventeen states have cut per-student funding more than 10 percent from pre-recession levels, and four — South Carolina, Arizona, California, and Hawaii — have reduced per-student funding for K-12 schools by more than 20 percent, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported.
Since the Great Recession began, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Texas, and other states have cut funding from early education programs to help close budget shortfalls. New Jersey cut funding for after-school programs. In a 2009 survey of California parents, 41 percent reported their child's school was cutting summer programs.
Cuts limiting student learning time are likely to intensify. An American Association of School Administrators survey reports 17 percent of respondents were considering shortening the school week to four days, and 40 percent were considering eliminating summer school programs. Summer learning loss is a major contributor to the achievement gap between poor and children and their more affluent peers. Districts across the country are beginning to cut extracurricular activities and to charge fees for supplies like biology safety goggles or printer ink.
These spending cuts come at a time when American education is in dire straits. The United States ranks 24th among 30 developed countries in overall educational achievement for 15-year-olds. A study of education systems in 60 countries ranks the United States 31st in math achievement and 23rd in science achievement for 15-year-olds. More than 60 percent of all fourth-, eighth-, and 12th-grade public school students in every racial and income group are reading or doing math below grade level. Nearly 80 percent or more of African-American and Latino students in these grades are reading or doing math below grade level.
Children should be getting more quality instructional time, not less, to prepare to compete in the rapidly globalizing economy. Instead they're being held back and provided fewer school days and hours by stopgap solutions to budget problems they didn't cause. Too many adults seem to lack the moral clarity and common sense for making decisions about what to cut and what to invest in.
How can we expect our children to create a better America if we don't give them a good education?
Cuts being proposed in Washington and in the states and localities around the country may be saving a few dollars on a balance sheet today — but tomorrow they will cost us dearly as a nation. How shortsighted we are. Where are our priorities?
What are our values?
Marian Wright Edelman is the president of Children's Defense Fund. www.childrensdefense.org
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