The Budget Crisis and Equity

IDEA at UCLA has released the 2011 report of their annual survey of learning conditions in California schools titled “Free Fall.” They find that the budget crisis is disproportionately hurting the most vulnerable communities:

  • California high schools are providing less time, attention, and quality programs. As a consequence, student engagement, achievement and progress to graduation and college are suffering.
  • School reform has all but sputtered to a halt due to staff cutbacks and the elimination of time for professional development.
  • Even as high schools across the state are impacted by declining budgets, inequality is growing across and within schools.
  • California’s high schools face growing demands from families experiencing economic crisis that point to the inter-relationship of California’s education and social welfare budgets.

Low-income communities suffer double jeopardy – cuts to their schools and ongoing economic devastation in the community – lack of jobs, reduced social services, etc.  Schools that should be a site of stability and support in chaotic neighborhoods are crumbling, their dedicated staffs slashed.  

There is a widespread belief that schools should carry most or all of the burden of fighting poverty, best articulated by Waiting for Superman.  While that film made many good points, it rested its case on a distorted view of social change and justice that ignored all the opportunities that middle class families provide around schools.  It presented Harlem Children’s Zone as a model without mentioning the social services its charter schools provide, or the huge budget it relies on.  According to IDEA’s report and other sources, teachers report seeing more and more hungry students.  Schools are clearly not a level playing field and it’s not a matter of  “getting tough with bad teachers” when some students are well fed and others are hungry.

The inequity of the budget crisis is clear when you see the level of teacher layoffs that may be coming in the poorest communities.  Here in Oakland, in not a few of our partner schools, a majority of teachers received pink slips last week.  These teacher *may* be laid off if the worst case budget scenario comes through, which apparently depends on a group of senators called the GOP Five. At one school, Futures Academy, 16 of 17 staff received the notices, and this was the most improved school in the district two years ago and is considered a model.  Its success is inseparable from the teachers themselves.  A school is not a building or a set of curricula and policies, it’s the people inside it.

The Oakland Tribune ran a very moving portrait of one of those people, one of the 657 teachers who received a pink slip in Oakland (out of some 2,500 total, or one in four).  Lissette Averhoff teaches at Acorn Woodland Elementary, a school we helped launch in 2000 and have worked with ever since.  We coached Lissette and her peers, and she is widely regarded as an excellent teacher, as are many at this high-poverty, high-performing school (their test scores have closed the gap with state averages, they have a rich approach to teaching for understanding, and they have a warm culture of caring and respect).  The article includes a video where students express their dismay that a favorite teacher might be forced to leave, and matches Waiting for Superman in tearjerking power.

Part of the policy background is the Last In First Out (LIFO) policy in Oakland, which is not fair to students and families in itself but in Oakland incredibly does not recognize experience prior to this district (Lissette came to Oakland in 2006 with seven years of teaching experience).  (Here’s a defense of LIFO at EdNotes.) But the bigger background is the continuing disinvestment in opportunity for our most marginalized communities.  It is not that we don’t have enough money to invest in schools for low-income communities of color, we’ve spent a billion dollars a day on the wars for 10 years now. I’m reminded of what Angela Blackwell of PolicyLink said at our event last October: equity, investment in all communities, is the ultimate growth policy.  It’s not charity, it’s an investment in our future, our shared fate.  The students in Lissette’s classes will also create and lead our collective future, if we can just muster the will to make the systemic changes so that this great school and its people and others like them can survive this economic assault intact.

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