Backpack Blues, Pink Slips, and No More Paperwork

By Mark Toner — April 29, 2005 3 min read
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As we get into the thick of spring, Illinois lawmakers are considering some weighty matters—specifically, a bill requiring school districts to limit the weight of the textbooks kids lug around. “Serious injuries are being reported, ... including spinal damage and chronic backaches,” said the state senator who introduced the legislation. Similar bills have been passed in California and Virginia, but Illinois wouldn’t require strict weight limits because “children are different sizes,” Senator Donne Trotter explained. That said, he did offer one suggestion: Break up lengthy textbooks into semiannual parts “since you don’t need the last chapters until the end of the year.”

Students at Tamaqua Area High School in Pennsylvania won’t have to worry about book bags at all for the rest of the year. Following two back-to-back bomb threats, school officials opted to ban bags of any kind at the school until the term ends. Now students cradle books and binders in their arms, though a few stopped to point out that the policy is relaxed after school hours for athletics and other activities. “Like nothing bad can happen or will happen after school. ... They’re saying, ‘Wait 10 minutes, and it will be fine,’ ” one sophomore said.

Another springtime ritual, at least in the Detroit area, is the annual flurry of pink slips—some 1,900 full-time teachers within the city limits alone were issued layoff notices this year. It’s part of the annual budget dance in cash-strapped Michigan: Districts make budget projections for the upcoming year and issue pink slips in April, then recall most of those teachers before fall. While education officials hold out hope for a $175-per-pupil funding increase proposed by Governor Jennifer Granholm, they fear that many of this year’s pink slips will become permanent. The superintendent of one district, which hasn’t seen a funding increase in four years and has cut everything from library books to buses, isn’t optimistic. “We’re hanging on by a thread, [and] this ... can’t continue any further without dismantling our district and other districts brick by brick.”

While Margaret Spellings is certainly hanging on by much more than a thread, it’s safe to say that, in PR terms at least, the ed secretary’s tenure hasn’t enjoyed the most placid of beginnings. First there was all that unpleasantness with the cartoon rabbit, and more recently she suggested that Connecticut lawmakers critical of NCLB were “un-American.” Yet it’s clear, observers say, that the White House is determined to avoid any wholesale changes to the law before it comes up for reauthorization in 2007, and Spelling’s unspoken role is to ensure that states put up with NCLB’s unpopular provisions until then. It isn’t the first time that Spellings, who wins high marks from many for her candor, has been portrayed as someone who relishes playing hardball—Texas teacher groups have called the longtime Bush ally the “princess of darkness.” “I don’t think I’m terrifying,” Spellings responded to a D.C. lobbyist’s characterization of her. “I’m a 47-year-old soccer mom.”

When it comes to enticing students to report classmates with guns or drugs, schools across the country don’t always play hardball. Instead, some are offering cash, prime parking spaces, and pizza parties to student snitches. About 2,000 schools and colleges have already promised rewards for anonymous tips, though critics complain that mistrust among students is the inevitable byproduct. At Model High School in Rome, Georgia, candy and soda sales now fund cash rewards for informants, though no one has stepped forward thus far. “Everyone just thinks it’s a joke,” one senior said. “If someone brings a gun to school or is doing drugs in the bathroom, no one has to pay me to let the teachers know.”

As many of us know, this week marks “Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day,” which brings millions of school-age children into their parents’ offices. But one Illinois district has warned that starting next year, the day will be considered an unexcused absence. It’s an increasingly common stance; Arizona’s superintendent went so far as to say that “playing hooky from school ... doesn’t prepare you for work.” Beyond the bluster is the less-publicized fact that in many places, including Arizona and Illinois, the day conflicts with standardized testing. So even if they can’t watch their parents push paper, kids will still get the chance to do it on their own.

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