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Virginia Journal of Education


The Faces and Hardships Behind the Numbers

A new report by The Commonwealth Institute offers snapshots of what funding cuts really mean in our schools.


By Tom Allen

So many numbers and statistics cross our radar, and so many of them seem large and confusing, that we can get a sense of nonchalance about them. Hundreds of thousands, even millions, of dollars or other things, can lose any real meaning.

 So when we read that funding for public schools in Virginia last fall was about 11 percent less than it was in 2009, or that adjustments to the state’s budget formula has cut K-12 spending by just over $1 billion and that localities can’t always make up the difference, it doesn’t always register with us. We need context to make real sense of numbers like those.

 Well, here’s some context, thanks to The Commonwealth Institute, a Richmond-based public policy research organization. A new report by Institute offers some concrete examples of how funding cuts really play out in our schools every day. Here are a few:

• Kids aren’t getting the reading help they need. One teacher in southwestern Virginia says her school has lost its reading resource teacher: “Sixty percent of our students are at at-risk reading levels,” she says. “That makes reading intervention positions like literacy coaches or resource teaching incredibly valuable.”

• Class sizes are growing. “In urban environments, children most benefit when the numbers are smaller,” says a school administrator in Tidewater. “Our class size numbers are huge—30 to 35 students in our core subjects.”

• Teachers and students are struggling with inadequate resources. One teacher in an urban area notes that her textbooks are so out of date that they no longer correlate to Virginia’s Standards of Learning. A teacher in southern Virginia says, “We have 21st-century learners, but a lot of the classrooms still don’t have a Promethean or Smart Board. And so, with math, there are a lot of different manipulatives that can be used to really simplify different concepts. I’m stuck to a projector.”

• Schools lack support staff and services. “Our school is over capacity, and our nurse will see anywhere from 50 to 75 kids a day,” says a teacher in the Shenandoah Valley. “There are days when she doesn’t get a lunch break. If she’s lucky, she’ll get a bathroom break.” Many schools must share a nurse with other buildings, and our students need more counselors, transportation workers, custodians and other support professionals, too.

• Special needs students are losing essential programs. Staff positions and programs are being cut for students who must learn English and students from poverty-stricken families. In Norfolk, for example, where the number of English learner students has nearly tripled since 2009, one teacher says, “I have an EL student in my class and we’re trying to learn together. You can tell she is a bright little girl, but we’re not giving her everything that she needs.”

• Facilities are deteriorating. Many areas no longer have the funds for building upkeep and have become not only distracting and demotivating environments, but unhealthy ones, too. In one Virginia city, teachers talk of having to put buckets in the hall to catch water leaking through the ceilings. “Most of our tiles are a brownish color and they are sinking and falling,” says one. “You can see water come down the walls—literally, you can see the water.” Teachers in another school have written to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration because of mold concerns.

• Schools lack some of the professionals our children need. Virginia now has about 2,800 fewer school staff members than it did in 2009, including teachers, counselors, principals and support positions. If the state had hired staff to keep up with growing enrollments, there would actually be 10,400 more educators today than there were eight years ago.

• We’re losing top-notch teachers because we can’t afford to pay them a competitive salary. One Central Virginia teacher says this of her school division: “Most teachers [here] are here as dedicated people. But dedication can go but so far. As well as we try, we’re not retaining people. In general, people leave for better pay. It’s not the dedication. It’s about livelihood, and trying to rear your family, and trying to pay your bills.” The average salary in this teacher’s school division is anywhere from about $2,000 to over $13,000 less than neighboring localities.

For the report, entitled “Demonstrated Harm: Cuts to School Funding Are Hurting Virginia Classrooms,” The Commonwealth Institute held focus groups with educators in six school divisions across the state. Participants were permitted to speak anonymously so they could express their thoughts freely. The report was released in April and the full text is available at the Institute’s website, www.thecommonwealthinstitute.org.

 In a summary at the end of “Demonstrated Harm,” its writers note: “Virginia’s economy demands a future workforce that is prepared with the skills, knowledge, and competencies to help make it thrive. These experiences from instructors around the state show that years of the state cutting corners to balance the budget has finally caught up with teachers and schools trying to do more with less. It’s time lawmakers adequately support Virginia schools and commit to investing in our future.”

Allen is editor of the Virginia Journal of Education.

 

 


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