Monday, March 2, 2015

The Real Cost of Budget Cuts 1: Poverty

The county education budget debate rages on in my community, and I am delighted by that. The public pressure exerted by many does appear to be changing the budget conversation to an extent. The response not only to my posts but especially to the budget information provided by the county school system and to the petition started by a parent/teacher shows that a large segment of the population cares about where county money goes. People care. It’s easy, as a public servant, to feel that the public just doesn’t care about what we do day to day. The public does care and wants information.

We have one more month before the county executive submits her budget to the county council by April 1 (Hey, you over there with the April Fools budget jokes—pipe down), so I am going to use that time here to provide information about some aspects of the public school system that most folks don’t fully understand. Just as I probably don’t know the daily complexities of your profession, you probably don’t know the intricacies of mine. But because your voice is important in making sure that my colleagues and I can have the resources to get our jobs done, I submit the first of several critical issues for your consideration.

Topic A: Poverty

The only kind of school I ever want to teach in is a public school. The American public education system is broader in mission and scope than any other public school system in history, and it is the aspect of “being an American” of which I am most proud. Because the United States wants to be a strong democracy, the necessity of an educated electorate has been a priority since our earliest days as a nation. Providing a free public education is a nation's best proof that all Americans matter and that they all deserve a chance. Debate the myth vs. reality of the concept of the “American Dream” all you want—in the public education system, opportunity and equality still matter. Public schools are, by nature, the most inclusive institution in American life. Frankly, I tear up when I think about it too much. I am so lucky to be a part of it.

That inclusivity, in truth, is also the core of many of the schools' problems. Unlike private schools, public schools take everyone, regardless of whether they have learning challenges, behavior issues, criminal records, and whether their parents can afford to buy them pencils. That inclusivity also means that the public school system is HUGE. In this country, approximately 89% of its children attend public school, which equates to nearly 66 million children. This responsibility is enormous.

In my own county, the number of children attending our public schools is 15,681. That large total is misleading to the eye because each number in it is a child. Number 2 is a child. Number 357 is a child. Number 15,680 is a child. Every single one of those children matters.

Each of those 15,681 children comes to school with needs. All children need to learn the content of the curriculum. Most children need help in learning how to get along with others. Some children need breakfast and lunch at school because their parents cannot afford to feed them every meal. Some children need occupational therapy services to manage their physical disabilities. Some children are homeless, and school is the only stable address they know. For some children, many of their needs have not been met before age 3 or 4 because it is often not until they entered public school that anyone outside of their nuclear family became aware that some of those needs existed. Again, public schools take every child, so all of their problems are our problems. 

I have taught in two high schools in my county, and the socioeconomic spectrum of the children in both schools always awes me. Some of my students have lived on estates with horses and Jaguars and pools and every type of gaming system. Some of my students have lived in cars or in a different house each night or in structures that are little more than a lean-to. Teachers do not receive any specific, official information identifying students as living in impoverished environments, but we pick up on it quickly.
  • It's sometimes in the street address that we see when we look for their parents' phone numbers in PowerSchool to call home.
  • It’s in the pale thinness of the student in first period who clearly has not eaten for some time.
  • It’s in the sweet-nonetheless smile of the student who has obviously never been to a dentist.
  • It’s in the downcast eyes of the student on the first day of school when I hand out the federal form for parents to fill out so that the child can receive free or reduced-price meals—I give the forms to everyone, but she feels like everyone knows that program is for her.
Poverty is real, but our official ways of designating it and reporting it allow us all to be in denial about it. According to the U.S. Census, approximately 102,000 people live in my county. Also according to their data, approximately 10% of those folks live in poverty. Compared to other parts of our state and the nation, that number is not ideal but does not seem to be at a crisis level. Here’s the problem: that number is based on an extremely narrow calculation of earned wages.

The U.S. government uses the annual pre-tax (yes, PRE-TAX, which means before taxes, before FICA, before everything) income level of $11,670 as the cutoff for people who live at the poverty level. That equates to working full time for $5.61/hour. How does the federal government get away setting such a ridiculously inaccurate threshold for being poor? Because they do not change that rate to correspond with inflation or the reality of local costs of living. 

[The poverty threshold is another debate for another time, but I encourage you to contact your Congressional representative so that he or she does something about that. If you live in my county, call this guy.]

To address the issue of children living in poverty, the federal government has long provided children who are living below this threshold with free meals at public schools. To prevent additional children from slipping into the abject poverty of the federal threshold (and perhaps because the feds sense that their poverty cutoff is not exactly accurate), they allow students in homes within 185% of the poverty level to receive reduced-price meals (which caps at an income of $29,101 [$13.99/hour] for a single parent with one child). This number—the number of children receiving free or reduced-price meals—is the schools’ most accurate measure of poverty and socioeconomic need.

Complicating this issue is the fact that parents and students report their need for these meals to us. Thus, because of the stigma our society attaches to living in poverty, this number is underreported, especially when middle and high school students (who are old enough to sense that stigma) are the ones in charge of bringing that signed form back to school. Often, as you can imagine, the form just doesn’t come back.

So, to review, my county’s official poverty level is 10%. My county school system’s level of students receiving free and reduced meals, however, is 45% (source: Cecil County Public Schools), likely an underestimate of those eligible to say the least. Our school system is overwhelmed with students living in both the federally designated abject poverty level and the poverty we all know exists given the cost of living in our community even when parents are earning anything near the so-called minimum wage.

Poverty affects all aspects of the school environment. Some of those costs have a direct price tag in the budget. Here is a sample:
  • the cost of covering field trip expenses for students whose parents cannot afford them so that students are not stigmatized and can perhaps see the world outside their own
  • the cost of the musical instruments, athletic equipment, and other extracurricular materials that give students living in poverty somewhere safe to go after school and something to do that may inspire them to move out of their socioeconomic circumstances
  • the cost of transporting the 649 homeless students in our system (source: Cecil County Public Schools) to their home schools from wherever they need to take shelter for the night so that they know something, somewhere of permanence
But perhaps the biggest costs of poverty are ones that we would consider “soft” costs (they don’t have a budget line item but influence not only other budget items but also every single measure of our success as a school system and as a society). Some of those soft costs include
  • the cost of having enough classroom resources to cover the parents who want to provide their children with supplies but can’t
  • the cost of having enough guidance counselors in each building so that counselors are able to get to know each student and what his or her needs are and to allocate necessary services to those students
  • the cost of having enough administrators in each building so that students with behaviors resulting from the challenges of their home lives are not simply punished but have those challenges addressed in depth so that they can manage and overcome them
  • the cost of the coordination of public services (social services, health department, law enforcement) when the schools identify an issue for a student that requires a team public effort to resolve
  • the cost of having enough teachers (and enough actual classrooms for those teachers) to keep class sizes small enough that a teacher can know students and their family circumstances in a way that allows the school environment to support those students in a caring, consistent, and ongoing manner
  • the cost of keeping school facilities running and up to date to handle those transportation issues and to provide students with adequate heat and food and shelter because we may be the only time during the day that many of our students experience heat and food and shelter
In short, poverty is expensive, but it is nowhere near as expensive for our society as not providing these interventions for students. If schools do not provide these services, who will? Which public institution has the ability to identify and address children's needs on the scale that the public school system does? None of them does. Schools want to do this workto help these students and their families to live a better life, to have better jobs, and to be more productive citizens. And that costs money.

Almost half of our students live in some form of poverty. If we take into account the fact that the number is  underreported, the real number is probably more than half. It’s easy to think about these students as numbers instead of as children. “Forty-five percent” doesn’t look like half of the faces in my English classes, just as “free and reduced meals” don’t sound like the fresh sandwiches our school's cafeteria staff makes for kids on Fridays. Caring about “children living in poverty” in the abstract is easy. Caring for them in reality is hard. It’s expensive, time-consuming, and sometimes heartbreaking and agonizing work. The schools want to do that work.

Children are not adults. They are not responsible for the wealth or poverty of their circumstances. They cannot pay for the dentist. They cannot provide water, heat, and shelter for themselves. However their parents’ poverty originated, their children are not responsible for it. We, as the adults in their community, are responsible for their safety and well-being regardless of whether we are related to them.

Anyone who has lived or visited our county knows that our citizens are overwhelmingly good people who love their country, their community, and their children, and they work hard to uphold their values. 

Whether your primary concern in this life is for 
  • your country (which historically embraces its “tired, poor, huddled masses”), or 
  • your family (and your sense of compassion causes you to see your own kids' faces in the faces of children who have much, much less than yours do), or
  • your faith (perhaps the dominant belief system in our community, one that encourages your sense of responsibility toward “the least of these”), or 
  • your wallet (and you’d like to reduce crime and drug use to increase your property value), 
      poverty is your issue. 

The public schools are willing to take that issue on for you. For us to put our collective monies where are mouths are means fully funding the institution that works every day to foster democracy for our society, promotes equal opportunity for all students, and supports the needs of students who need us most. 

All children matter. Public schools matter. I believe that people care, and not just about the money. If you are one of them, help us to convince the county executive and county council that all children matter. A change in our county's approach to budgeting (a change that affects thousands of children's lives, half of them living in poverty) will not happen without you. 

Cecil County Education Budget Quick Links

  • To show support for full funding of the Cecil County Public Schools budget, sign the petition here.
  • To view a presentation from our superintendent of schools and chief financial officer on the school budget, click here.
  • To see a website created by one of our parents with explanatory infographics on our education budget issues, click here

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