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The funding crisis strikes home.

 

By Mary Ellen Flannery

When Amanda Valente’s fifth-graders studied ancient civilizations last year, they dressed like Spartan warriors, drew on pharaoh beards, and played the games of Ancient Rome in their own bazaar.

So why does it feel like Valente — the recently crowned teacher of the year in her New Jersey district — has been tossed to the lions? Why does it feel like ancient siege warfare has come to public education?

Amanda Valente was teacher of the year until she was laid off.
Photo: Norman Y. Lono

When school starts this August, Valente won’t be back at Lincoln Park Middle School, planning the kinds of lessons that get kids excited about learning. Neither will Eric Mains, her fifth-grade colleague down the hall; or Elizabeth Fineberg, the school’s media specialist; or Evelyn Martin, the veteran aide who works one-on-one with special education students in an intensive reading program. 

 “We have never had a year like this,” said Matt Spencer, the local union president, with frustration. All in all, nearly a quarter of Lincoln Park’s roughly 100 educators won’t be returning to their campuses, including a guidance counselor with 24 years experience.

 Of course, they’re not alone. In 80 percent of districts nationwide, thanks to a funding crisis of unprecedented proportion and elected officials unwilling to step up and help, hundreds of thousands of high-quality teachers and hard-working support professionals spent their summer wondering if they had a job.

And, at the end of the day, it's the students who really suffer. "We can't ask students to tighten their belts and accept a substandard education because of the tough economy," said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. "It's incomprehensible that they're being asked to bear the brunt of the nation's economic woes."

So don’t be surprised to find 42 kids — all with diverse needs and abilities — in your classroom this fall.  Don’t be surprised to find the school library closed, the music room silent, and the after-school athletic fields empty. But most of all don’t be surprised if your Association continues to call on you to strongly advocate for public education.

This spring, as part of NEA’s Speak Up for Education & Kids campaign, more than 100,000 NEA members phoned or emailed their U.S. member of Congress, and equal numbers rode crowded buses to energetic marches in Trenton, Springfield, Phoenix, Raleigh, Lansing, and elsewhere. They all knew that it takes a loud, strong, unified voice of educators, parents and community members to make the case for public schools and students. And, in late June, they won a significant victory when $10 billion in funding for education jobs won approval in the House of Representatives — "a direct result of educators’ voices and efforts," Van Roekel said.

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But the money, if it passes the Senate and is signed into law by the president, still comes too late for Valente and her colleagues. “It just seems like education isn’t such a priority,” said Valente, in the closing days of her Lincoln Park tenure. “And it’s sad — because I think the kids deserve more than that.”

One Small School

Amanda Valente didn’t know, at first, that she wanted to be a teacher. After business school, she went into marketing, but “it wasn’t fulfilling,” she said. “I was in a cubicle, in an office… it’s not like here. There’s this connectedness here — with the staff, with the kids.”

This past year was her third year in the classroom and her most successful yet, as demonstrated by her award in June as the district’s teacher of the year. “By year three, you’re in it. You know your craft,” Valente said. “It’s very difficult to imagine moving on.”
 But she has no choice. This year, Lincoln Park, a small K-8 district in Morris County, New Jersey, lost $1 million in state aid, roughly half of its usual share, thanks to a bullying governor who has given little thought to the consequences of his $820 million cuts.

Does he care to know what it means when class sizes go from 20 to 30? Or 30 to 40? Does he care what happens — or, more to the point, what doesn’t happen — when support professionals are cut? When after-school programs are eliminated? When a school library is closed?

 This is not just a problem in New Jersey. School districts from California to North Carolina are grappling with these questions — but the answer is pretty simple: Students suffer.

Bulging class sizes means “the loss of one-on-one time with kids who have high needs,” said Seanna Vail, a third-grade teacher at El Crystal Elementary in San Bruno, California, which lost a third of its staff this year. “And I don’t care how good of a teacher you are, when you have 30-plus kids of varying abilities, somebody is going to get left behind.”

Evelyn Martin, classroom aide, has "no options" now, she said.
Photo: Norman Y. Lono

The loss of Evelyn Martin, an aide at Lincoln Park Middle, means that sixth-grader who reads at a second-grade level won’t have her trained help. It means the special education student who joins her for lunch every day, learning valuable social skills, will go it alone. “What’s going to happen to him? What’s going to happen to all of these kids who need services? How exactly does this make sense?” Martin asked angrily.

Down the hall, media specialist Elizabeth Wineberg also was laid off. Next year, her school’s library will be staffed 10 hours a week by a visiting librarian. Will that person host Twilight parties like Wineberg? Will she be able to maintain the library’s collection of books and databases? Could she possibly have the time to assist teachers and students in research projects, teach two classes in media studies, and also advise student council?

“I really tried to get students to love the library,” Wineberg said wistfully.
 

The Good Fight

In Illinois, a dysfunctional state legislature still owes the Elgin school district millions of dollars from last year’s appropriations. In anticipation of even messier management this year, the district sent pink slips to 27 percent of the local union’s membership this spring, including the majority of special-service providers: social workers, nurses, counselors and resource teachers in special education. At one high school, 80 teachers were cut.

It got people’s attention, said past-president Tim Davis. “We had thousands of teachers travel to Springfield in late April to lobby the legislature. We sent three busloads down to participate in rally day. And locally, more people are willing to contact legislators in their home district. That’s one of the outcomes of dealing with this crisis,” he noted.

 Similarly, in Lincoln Park, Spencer’s colleagues have responded to his every request for advocacy. “It’s going to have to continue,” he promised. “This year, for our members, it’s become very clear that if you’re not active, if you don’t have self-interest in your career, it can be taken away from you,” he added.

That spirit of advocacy is more important now than ever. Funding issues haven’t gone away — if anything, they’re likely to get worse in some states. Pension issues also remain. And looming on the horizon is the Congressional reauthorization of No Child Left Behind — a law that sorely needs the common-sense input of actual educators.

Know that your activism makes a difference. And, in collaboration with parents and community members, it’s unstoppable. In Florida this year, after tens of thousands of educators and parents called and emailed Republican Gov. Charlie Crist’s office, he vetoed a potentially damaging teacher tenure bill. “One of the most important things a public servant can do is listen. God gave me two ears and one mouth,” Crist told National Public Radio.

 In New Jersey this year, your voices at school board meetings put a stop to one district’s privatization of custodial services. In Massachusetts, it saved foreign language programs for middle-school students. And, in Virginia, it protected full-day kindergarten. Nobody knows more about public education than public educators. So when you speak, they listen.

So keep it up. 

"All students deserve the highest quality education, and their education shouldn’t be diminished because we lack the political will to act. Every parent, community member and elected official needs to understand the real consequences of this funding crisis," Van Roekel said.

But back in Lincoln Park, the school year ended quietly. Valente and her laid-off colleagues packed their books and thank-you notes into cartons, and recollected their favorite moments. “There’s a million smiles that I’ll always remember,” Valente said. She’ll start a new job in another New Jersey district this fall, but she was still bittersweet at leaving her teammates and students.

“I thought I’d stay here forever,” she said.


 


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