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Virginia Journal of Education


On Point

 

We’re Shortchanging Our Kids

By Peter Pfotenhauer

From a presentation before the Spotsylvania Board of Education:

Before offering comments tonight about specifics in the superintendent’s proposed budget, I have a question you must answer for each and every line in the document: Does it put kids first? That’s what education is all about, after all.

When teachers remediate, tutor and reteach, they put kids first.

When a principal pays the field trip cost for a child who cannot afford to go, he or she puts kids first.

When our coaches work year-round to condition and improve the skills of their players, they put kids first.

When teachers grade papers late at night or on a Sunday afternoon, they put kids first.

When science teachers buy lab supplies for experiments with money from their own pockets, they put kids first.

Teaching is the only job where you steal office supplies from home to bring to work.

When teachers persuade, prod, nag and cajole kids to meet a high standard, they put kids first.

When donors stop by the Treasure House at Massaponax to drop off needed toiletries and laundry detergent for homeless students, they put kids first.

But, when state officials cut K-12 per-pupil funding by 16 percent, attack the teaching profession, and undermine public education, they have put politics first.

When the class of 2021 entered kindergarten in 2009, Spotsylvania County had approximately the same number of students we do this year, but class sizes averaged 18-22 students. We received $135 million in state funding based on the Standards of Quality, and used $120 million in local funds, plus federal money, to operate our schools. Every single one of our schools was fully accredited by the state.

Then came the Great Recession. State funding dropped $29 million over two years, and has yet to return to pre-recession levels. Local funding fell by $6 million, and is still $4 million below what it was in 2009. While student enrollment dropped by about 1.6 percent, teacher staffing fell 9.6 percent, causing class sizes to balloon.

And somewhere in the midst of all this, while schools maintained the quality that led Education Week to consistently rank Virginia’s public schools in the top 5 in the nation, state lawmakers made SOL test more rigorous and imposed severe accountability measures. This year, Virginia fell to 12th in Education Week’s rankings. Could funding cuts explain that drop and why SCPS now has 10 schools “accredited with warning?”

In Virginia, the General Assembly is required, by our state’s constitution, “to ensure that an educational program of high quality is established and continually maintained.(italics mine)” Unfortunately, legislators chose to rewrite the SOQs to match the funding available rather than fulfill their constitutional obligation.

For Spotsylvania County, these cuts mean $13 million less in state aid than if the old SOQs still held sway. Our children are being robbed to the tune of $543 per pupil. My 138 students have lost $74,934 this year alone; multiplied by the last 6 years, that’s $449,604. When I think about how far I could take my students with an extra half-million dollars…. And Virginia ranks 39th in the nation in per-pupil funding, yet 10th in median income. Is that putting kids first? Hardly!

The superintendent’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year has much to like. Lowering the pay-to-participate fee will help parents continue to put opportunities for their kids first. Increasing sponsor and coaching stipends 5 percent, an early retirement incentive with a 30 percent, one-time bonus payment, five additional special education teachers, and 58 total new staff members, including bus drivers, classroom aides and teachers are all positive steps. Do these additions put kids first?

Not yet, but they are a small first foot forward, after years of retreat, but we must pick up the pace. At this rate, restoring that $450,000 will take years.

We think a 3 percent cost-of-living increase for all staff puts kids first because the quality of the teacher remains the biggest school variable in student performance. You cannot get Cadillac-quality instruction paying Camry-level wages. Virginia salaries are already nearly $7500 below the national average and falling further behind.

After years of starvation-level funding, this year’s budget impresses by comparison—but make no mistake, it is just a first step to putting kids first again by a community I know values education above all. The Board of Supervisors should put kids first and close that gap with increased local funding if the state continues to betray our children.

In the Chinese zodiac, this is the year of the Horse. In Virginia, it must also be the year of the Child, for we must put kids first.

Pfotenhauer, president of the Spotsylvania Education Association, is a civics teacher at Ni River Middle School.
   

 


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