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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform.

Education Opinion

Science on a Cart

By Guest Blogger — May 15, 2014 5 min read

Note: Members from Educators For Excellence (E4E) are guest posting this week. Today’s post is from Marilyn Pearson. Marilyn is a member of the E4E-Connecticut Teacher Action Team on School Funding and is currently teaching at Fairchild Wheeler Magnet School.

During my first two years teaching in an urban high school in CT, I travelled from classroom to classroom pushing a cart. Our school was significantly over-crowded and as a result, new teachers were “cart teachers,” meaning we carried all of our materials and supplies from room to room until a classroom opened up. As a science teacher, it is almost impossible to fit the basic classroom supplies my students needed on a cart, not to mention laboratory equipment. Needless to say, I was ecstatic when I was able to finally move into my first classroom.

However, I immediately noticed that all of my desks were covered in graffiti. Not pretty graffiti - curse words and inappropriate anatomical doodles. I could not imagine what it would feel like to be a student sitting at that table, to feel so devalued that nobody provided me with a clean, professional learning environment. So, I painted the tables a lovely shade of green. My colleagues - particularly those from other districts, from the suburbs - thought it was insane that I spent my time and money painting these desks, year after year. But my students deserved it.

In the years that followed, with funding always in short supply, I have purchased a plethora of science supplies, from Petri dishes to enzymes, as well as typical classroom necessities. I did not see that I had any choice - my students deserved a quality education even if my school district could not or would not pay for it. If you are an urban educator, chances are this has been your reality at some point. It has been my reality in Bridgeport Public Schools for ten years.

Even though I was frustrated with the lack of funding, I had accepted this reality until recently when I had the opportunity to meet with a group of my fellow teachers, other Educators 4 Excellence members, to research and understand the problems with education funding in our district and our state. Before that, I had no idea where funding came from, what role the state plays, or how per-pupil expenditures were determined. I was astonished and appalled by what I learned. While money alone certainly won’t close our racial and ethnic opportunity gaps, low-income students in Connecticut and across the country at least deserve their fair share and right now, they’re not getting it.

In Connecticut, the Education Cost Sharing Formula is meant to equalize funding between poorer districts like Bridgeport, where tax dollars fall short of education needs, and wealthier towns with thriving schools. According to this formula, Bridgeport should have received over $211 million in total aid from the state this year. However, due to the formula being underfunded by the state, Bridgeport only received about $174 million. A fully funded formula would mean an additional $37 million for Bridgeport students this year alone. This money is critical to providing an equitable education for our students. Last year, Bridgeport schools received $13,700 per pupil, while schools in Greenwich, a neighboring wealthy district, received about $18,300 per pupil. To break the cycle of poverty and ensure quality education for all, it is critical that our inner city schools receive adequate funding.

In addition to the shortage of funding from the state, our budget lacks transparency and is controlled centrally by the district. Principals and teachers have very little say in how the district spends money, leaving only $29 per student to the discretion of principals and their staff. As a result of this policy, schools are forced to cut back and ration supplies. A few years ago, in a maneuver to save money, our school had to ration paper. All teachers, regardless of discipline, course load, or extra-curricular advising, received two reams per month. Teachers bought and hoarded paper and school climate and teacher morale plummeted. That same year, while we were rationing paper, the district bought and distributed new textbooks, without asking if we needed or wanted new books. I was horrified. I loved my previous textbook and the new book was missing major biology concepts; it was too broad and not as rigorous. If they had asked or, better yet, given our schools discretion over our budgets, we would have saved money, empowered teachers and principals, and improved school morale. Instead, millions of dollars were wasted in a district that simply cannot afford to waste. Bridgeport needs to give schools more autonomy and control over our budgets or additional funding might not be used where it is needed most.

A few years ago, I learned a phrase to describe students in underserved urban areas: “School Dependent.” This refers to the need for school to provide the basics because of the lack of resources at home. Basics many of us take for granted, like breakfast, bookbags, and extra-curricular activities. In addition to fully funding Connecticut’s current formula, we should revisit the allocations to ensure that schools with large populations of high needs students receive the additional funding necessary to meet the needs of these students.

Overall, in order for schools like mine to have the funding we need, three things need to happen:
• First, the state of Connecticut needs to fully fund Bridgeport and other underfunded school districts as promised by the Education Cost Sharing formula.
• Second, schools with high populations of students who have special needs or who rely on schools to cover many of their basic needs like breakfast, school supplies, and after school care need additional funding to ensure they have the resources necessary to serve their community.
• Third, our district needs to give schools more control, autonomy, and discretion over their budgets and clearly explain the decision making process for how money is being spent from the central office so that teachers can be involved.

If we fairly fund our schools, good teachers might just stick around and become great teachers. They could focus on innovative lessons instead of searching for sales on copy paper, or enzymes, or paint. All students deserve the opportunity to learn in a clean, fully-stocked classroom, with a dedicated professional at the helm, inspiring them, challenging them, and teaching them. All students, regardless of race, socio-economic status, county, or side of town, deserve an education that will set them up for success in life. Funding equity in Connecticut is an integral part of making this vision a reality for all students. Then, science “on a cart” might just become an urban legend.

--Marilyn Pearson

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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