Awaiting the Axe

Cuts are coming….what would you let the education budget writers take?    

A lot of ink has gone to describing the budget crunch that the Texas Legislature faced last year as it planned the next biennium. Many state services faced major cuts, as the Legislature and Governor Perry opted not to use any of the “Rainy Day Fund” to make up some of the funding shortfall.

Public school funding dipped by 6 percent for the 2011-2012 school year and is expected to drop by 8 percent for 2012-2013, according to NPR. (Just in case you remember that NPR can trend liberal, conservative outlets such as the Dallas Morning News have reported the same numbers) While some districts were able to get by with cutting some fringe benefits and simply not filling some open positions, instead of cutting their work force, the Leander school district (an Austin suburb) had to lay off 50 classroom teachers as part of a $20 million cut. In poorer districts, parents are being asked to pay for bus transportation and athletics. In the Pasadena district, 180 teachers were cut for this year. People who had filled such support positions as bus drivers, school crossing guards and inclusion aides have been let go in large numbers.

So here’s the question: what will be cut next? More teachers? More support staff?

Or will we actually take a hard look at the structure of our education model?

Linus Wright, superintendent of the Dallas ISD from 1978 to 1987, recently suggested a series of changes to the existing system. One idea involved having students graduate after 11th grade and, instead, fund a year of preschool before pre-kindergarten, letting kids enter at the age of 3.

No senior year, you say? Did you know that Texas students didn’t have a 12th grade until 1941? Because of the lingering effects of the Great Depression, too many high school grads were wandering around without any jobs or anything to do, so the state added a year of education. It would be interesting to see what would have happened had the United States entered World War II with Great Britain, in 1940, and given those kids the opportunity to enlist — would students still graduate at 17?

Cutting teachers means increased class sizes. Yes, there are plenty of teachers doing truly awful things that land them in jail — and in the news headlines — and there are plenty of lazy teachers who hide behind union protections and “due process” to hold onto their jobs much longer than they should. But the silent majority of teachers work hard, dedicated to the success of each student.

It may be time to consider opening several different educational pathways to success. The cookie cutter-approach of having every student follow the same basic set of experiences, including classroom instruction through kindergarten and all 12 grades, doesn’t work for everyone, as the success of such online schools as Yorktown Education suggests. For those who want a public or charter model, there is a growing number of alternatives as well.

It’s also time to start thinking about the unspoken sacred cow of the public education system — athletics. (Full disclosure: in addition to teaching English, I coach volleyball, basketball and track and field). But are multimillion-dollar stadiums an effective use of taxpayer money? Gasoline is currently $3.49 a gallon — at what price point will it no longer make sense for schools like Texas High School in Texarkana to travel all over Northeast Texas to play its district opponents?

Here’s a thought — what would happen if school districts leased their athletic facilities to private organizations to operate their team sports for them? Parents would pay a fee to enroll their children in the sport(s) of their choice, and the districts could make money from the leases. Teachers who coach now could sign on with the private organizations. Instead of paying coaching stipends to classroom teachers, districts could get a full academic day from each teacher, and coaches could then augment their income by coaching through these private organizations.

But what about losing free athletic participation? In many districts, there is a fee structure in place for athletes anyway. Instead of supporting athletics, schools could benefit from it. Teams would be associated with the organizations, instead of the schools.

But what about pep rallies? In Europe, sports are run through clubs — not through schools. The students still find ways to build school spirit, even without cheerleaders.

It’s time to start thinking about the way we structure education in the United States. Simply letting more teachers go and letting infrastructure decay for another year, hoping that the next two-year cycle brings rosier sales tax revenues, is irresponsible thinking. It’s almost like…waiting until the next election cycle to deal with the coming Social Security calamity. Oh, wait…..

Image Credits: By b.gliwa (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

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