For the past 30 years, I have served as an educator in the Macon County School System. It has always been and remains to this day a rewarding profession. Over the past several years however, that profession and public schools in general have been subjected to some very daunting challenges. One of the most disturbing trends that I have witnessed in recent years is the significant reduction in number of adults available to work directly with students in our elementary classrooms. Ten years ago there were enough assistants to provide full time help for students in grades K-3 and to provide part time help in grades 4-6. We have reached a point now where we do not even have enough to cover all of our kindergarten and first grade classrooms. The beautiful new Iotla Valley Elementary School where I currently serve as principal has fewer classroom assistants now than the old Iotla school had five years ago, and that school had less than half of our current enrollment.
In fairness, it should be stated that local per pupil spending has held steady or even increased during this time. If capital outlay (money for new buildings and buses and furnishings) is included in the equation, I’m quite confident that local expenditures will appear quite generous. This type of funding is necessary and actually more politically palatable than current expense spending since people can see the need for and the results of building projects.
But it’s not the building that educates the kids. It’s the people. And it’s the current expense budget that pays salaries. Holding current expense funding steady or even providing slight increases does not look like a cut on paper. But funding must keep pace with cost increases and additional needs as they arise. If it doesn’t, the results are real and unmistakable cuts that over time will have a profoundly negative impact on our schools. These ongoing, increasingly negative outcomes have certainly been evident, from my perspective, for over a decade. As a building level administrator, I have witnessed a consistent, gradual and steady decrease in the number of full time human resources available to work directly with students. It is a trend that concerns me greatly. To ask an elementary educator to continue to do more with less, may, in all honesty be asking more than they can do. Teachers, and the diminishing corps of assistants, simply may not be able to do what the public expects them to do and what their students need them to do. As educators, we’re not supposed to say that, but it needs to be said.
In fairness to our local leaders, the responsibility for providing buildings and equipment for students in North Carolina falls primarily to local governments. Our county is probably in as good a shape as it’s been in a long time in that regard. The responsibility for staffing those buildings is primarily up to the state. But state budgeting formulas do not account for the myriad of circumstances that occur on individual campuses…and gaps do occur. Those gaps have been made worse over the years by the state’s requirement for “discretionary reductions” and by funding formulas that simply are not adequate for their intended purpose. Local leaders feel pressure to fill those gaps because these are “our” children. The burden of being a politician is that, in the face of these needs, they also feel pressure to keep tax rates and expenditures low. Educators can appreciate that as well as anyone.
But there must be a balance. It has now been more than10 years since our system has adopted new textbooks. Since that time new curriculum standards have been imposed. Most of our current hardback texts do not meet or follow the new standards. In 2008-09, state textbook funding was set at about $67.00/student. It is currently around $14.00/ student, nearly the cost of a “digital” textbook, most of which are priced at $14.99. The low cost of these when compared to hard copy texts which typically run from $70 to $125 for each high school textbook has created the need to purchase iPads or some other type of digital device. The cost factor along with the fact that Raleigh is no longer planning to fund hard copy textbooks at all after 2017 plus the fact that state testing is rapidly moving towards digital delivery has left local districts with little choice in the matter.
Recent trends in educational spending have brought the following results at the local level:
In spite of the conditions above, teachers are asked to do more and more, including a multitude of tasks that were not even on the radar just a few years ago. Benchmark and progress monitoring assessments, tier progressions, software packages such as Power-School, M-class, Aimsweb and EZrti all require a level of training and expertise over and above the subject matter and instructional knowledge that have always been inherent in the job. These extra duties, along with the heavier burden of non-instructional duties that had once been covered by assistants, leaves teachers precious little time for undertaking what should be their primary task, planning, preparing and delivering engaging lessons.
Twenty years ago at the local level, our parents, our citizens, and our leaders thought it worthwhile to allocate funds, arguably to the point of going above and beyond, to insure that our schools would have the personnel and resources necessary to meet the needs of our students. If we’re still concerned about student achievement (and those interminable test scores), expecting them to rise in the face of such cuts as described above is akin to cutting a police force by 30% and expecting the crime rate to go down.
Our leaders in Raleigh can and should help the situation, but I am not optimistic that it’s going to happen, at least in the near term. Lower taxes trump just about everything right now, public education included. But we could still decide to do more locally… if we were of a mind to. We’re not a poor county. We could provide enough funding to better protect the classrooms and we could do so without sacrificing our county’s tradition of conservative values.
A one cent increase in our millage rate would cost the taxpayer $100 a year for every $100,000 worth of property and would still leave Macon County with one of the very lowest property tax rates in the state. It would allow us to do much to offset the continued cuts from Raleigh. It would allow us to better meet the needs of our students…needs that are currently going unmet.
Education is still a people business, and people cost money. I am an educator and admittedly biased. I have seen reductions in classroom staffing for a long, long time and would submit for consideration that, at the elementary classroom level, we have cut enough. It’s time to stop the bleeding.