Policy changes and public schools
Gov. Tom Corbett and the General Assembly must be commended for closing the $4.2 billion budget gap in Pennsylvania without raising taxes, but the policy changes that have been
made to achieve this are not all good. The budget is indeed fiscally responsible, but there is still a lot of work to be done.
Some of the good changes include the reduction of the state operating budget by $2 billion this year, the first time in the last 40 years. New legislation will also allow voters to have a greater say in school taxes. There have been no additional taxes on natural gas drilling, which has helped the economic and job growth in the state. All of Pennsylvania’s government spending will also be put online. No new WAM’s (Walking Around Money) were put in the budget either.
On the downside, the state government has not been able to adequately fund pensions or provide private-sector parity in benefits and compensations for government workers. Taxpayer dollars are still being used to fund many corporate welfare programs and much of the pension fund liabilities are being passed on to future generations.
The public school system still needs some major changes. Children who are trapped in failing and violent public schools still do not have educational lifelines from the government that they can use to pull themselves out of the status quo. Thousands of children have no other option but to go back to these failing schools.
This issue of funding the public school system is not limited to just Pennsylvania alone. Schools across the country are suffering from state and local budget cuts that are ultimately reflected in lopping off school days, cramming way too many classes into the week and doing away with summer school programs. Even though there is consensus between educational experts in education that our students need more time in schools, this issue has not been adequately addressed.
The budget for the Los Angles summer classes was $18 million last year and now it has been slashed to just $3 million. Milwaukee, Philadelphia and most of the North Carolina school districts have totally cut out summer classes. In California, school districts have already shortened the school year by five days, and have authorization to cut seven more days to stay within the budget.
Justin Hamilton of the Department of Education says that in many cases, they have been trying to at least maintain the school days, weeks and the year instead of cutting them down further. The problem with the traditional 180 day school calendars is that each fall, as school reopens, most of the students – especially those who are poor - return with poor recollection of what they had learned during the previous year. The Obama administration has not been able to do much about increasing the school year in spite of the Secretary of Education acknowledging that the instruction time is too short, during his 2009 confirmation hearing.
There is however, an ambitious federal program as part of a $4 billion effort to increase learning time in 1,150 failing schools. Fort Logan Elementary School has already increased their per week instruction time by four and a half hours, using the federal budget. But not all schools are fully utilizing the federal money or the increase in school time for academics – the Smithridge Elementary School was using the extra 15 minutes for breakfast and not instruction. San Francisco’s Everett Middle School was not inclined to use the federal support to increase their instruction time because they had already increased their school day by an hour 6 years ago.
A report by the Boston based National Center on Time and Learning points out that many schools across the country have cut down on their school hours and days. But there are also examples of many schools that have increased their instruction times.
Pittsburgh is using $11 million of the federal money to provide 5,300 students 23 extra days of reading and math instruction in a summer adventure program that uses many of the recording studios, museums and even bicycle-repair shops of the city to classrooms.
In a small town called Brandon near Sioux Falls, 65 teachers and principals will work without pay this summer to keep their summer program going, which would otherwise be cancelled due to lack of state aid.
In Chicago, which has the dubious claim to fame as an urban city with one of the shortest school days, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is working with schools to increase instruction time for the fall term.
But for every good story, there is a bad one.
Oregon school districts have been negotiating furlough days with teachers unions. A survey by the Oregon School Boards Association shows that the average number of days that the teachers are scheduled to be with students have fallen from 167 this year to 165 the next.
Nevada has dropped their school days from 180 to 175, and other states such as Arizona and California have also lowered the bar on the minimum required days of instruction. California has allowed the minimum level to be at 168 days and Hawaii shortened school days from 180 days to 163 days in 2009. The schools remained closed on many Fridays. The lawmakers restored it to 178 days last year amidst protests by the public.
Though the North Carolina lawmakers upped the minimum instruction days from 180 days to 185 days, due to the lack of additional financing, the education officials were not overjoyed by the legislation.
The Balsz Elementary district with 2,800 students adopted a 200 day school year from 2009-10. They used the local tax levy and a state law that supported districts that met the threshold by increasing financing by 5%. Reading scores have shown significant improvement after the new school year.
Parents love it, and while students are not too thrilled about spending additional hours in school, older students who are now heading off to Universities acknowledge the benefits of those extra hours of study.