Education Opinion

When Reform Meets Recession

By Harris J. Sokoloff & Marvin Lazerson — October 03, 1990 7 min read

Storm clouds are gathering over public education as two powerful forces collide: the need for school reform and the contingencies of an impending recession.

Already, the tension between these forces is revealing (once again) how vulnerable school-improvement efforts are to financial strain. If the storm clouds burst, there will be conflict between schools and their communities, reduced funds for education, strife between teachers and school districts, and incalculable losses to our children.

The scenario is painfully simple.

Over the past few years, school districts across the country have reached teacher agreements that increase salaries and are designed to aid in the improvement of schools. Starting salaries for new teachers have risen into the low- to mid-$20,000 range. And in a number of districts, the top level for veteran teachers (those with 15 years of experience and a master’s degree plus 30 graduate credits) runs between $60,000 and $75,000.

These new contracts claim between 80 and 90 percent of district operating budgets. In some cases, they represent simple salary increases, making no new demands on teachers--either through accountability or through additional responsibilities. In others, they have strengthened the movement to recognize the accomplishments of teachers through career ladders and categories such as master teacher. Greater stress is being placed in many cases on such innovations as school-site management, where educators in individual schools, working with parents and community leaders, determine what is best for the students.

These are significant developments. But they are not a panacea for our educational ills. Not every child is learning more, nor is every teacher a great teacher. The new contracts do, however, change the pay scales, so that teachers can earn respectable incomes and gain recognition as professionals. Most of all, they affirm a commitment to public schools and to educational improvement.

Unfortunately, however, the contracts have come as states, cities, and towns face difficult economic circumstances. Revenues are down, deficits are rising, the needs of the elderly and the impoverished demand additional funding, and the federal government is resisting substantial increases in educational support.

Like the government in Washington, many state governments are also developing educational agendas long on rhetoric and short on financial support. There has even been a lack of continuing support for some state-mandated programs.

In Pennsylvania, for example, the state has eliminated even minimal funding for its tells program, the Test of Essential Learning and Literacy Skills given all students in grades 3, 5, and 8 to gauge proficiency in mathematics and reading. Under that program, districts were required to provide special remediation for students who fell below a state cut-off level, with the state providing a small subsidy for each affected student.

The test is still required, but funding to partially subsidize remediation has been eliminated, placing districts in the difficult position of either picking up those additional costs--and thus further straining the already strained local taxpayer--or reducing or eliminating the services. (See story, page XX.)

This is the case elsewhere, as state governments increasingly shift more of the financial burden onto local agencies, forcing them to raise local property taxes, even as pressures mount for states to equalize financing.

Every superintendent we know is worried that local government officials will not support the newly agreed upon teachers’ contracts. In Philadelphia, a major breakthrough occurred last May, when the city council supported tax increases for the schools. But all the signals suggest this may be the last such support for a while. Philadelphia’s deepening fiscal crisis is such that the city may now have to pass on to the school district costs for certain services, such as crossing guards and trash collection, that it once absorbed. This will put additional pressures on an already tight school budget.

In many other cities, mayors who once boldly announced their satisfaction with groundbreaking teacher contracts are now waffling. School-board members who fought for the contracts are being challenged and defeated by candidates who (naively) promise to reduce school budgets or to get tough with the teachers. And the public, already upset about mediocre services and high taxes, appears much less enthusiastic about providing the resources to support school improvement than it did just a few years ago.

Speculation is rampant in many quarters that public officials are going to announce that they cannot meet the terms of contracts. Even where a contract is being honored, the currents are growing stronger for a backlash at the next round of negotiations. Only a few taxpayers can expect their own salaries to increase greater than the cost of living, providing little sympathy for teachers who strike because they want more than the l0 percent a year the board is offering.

There is also an increase in “single issue school-board members,” who are elected with a single agenda (lower taxes, increase teacher accountability) and have little understanding of the complexity--the interconnectedness--of the issues.

Clearly, the battle lines are being drawn. School-board members, superintendents of schools, and teachers are gearing up for potentially bitter teachers’ strikes.

But it does not have to happen. And, it would be tragic if it did. The last thing our communities, our schools, and our children need is for the commitments of the last few years to be lost in bitter labor disputes over contracts, or in divisive budgetary fights.

What can we do to avoid it? The key is to realize the crucial role that parent, community, and business groups can play, both in making the reforms work and in providing needed financial and political support.

The reforms will take time to implement and more time to show concrete results. But involving parent, community, and business groups in those efforts in meaningful ways--for example, on restructuring committees and task forces and as mentors for students, teachers, and administrators--will increase the human resources working on school improvement. It will also give these people the chance to see change happening, sometimes long before the proof in hard data is available.

This kind of involvement will increase these groups’ sense of ownership of reform activities. They will have a stake in making sure such activities have every chance to succeed. And, they will be more likely to fight in the public arena to ensure continuing financial commitment from federal, state, and local sources.

Beyond that, public officials who originally blessed the teachers’contracts will have to stand behind their commitments. They supported the contracts because they believed they were imperative to the improvement of the schools and the future of their communities.

Administrators and teachers will need, in turn, to stop being passive. They cannot assume that all of their constituents agree that our schools are our only real form of social security. They will need to work together to take their case to the public. Whenever possible, administrators and board members will have to invite even their critics to participate on task forces and committees at work on restructuring.

Public-school administrators will have to show that the schools are getting better, that they are making gains that must be supported. They will have to devise creative ways to increase community involvement in their endeavors. They will have to enter corporate boardrooms and union halls to generate that involvement; they will have to speak on behalf of their schools in churches, on college campuses, and to the media.

For their part, teachers cannot stand around waiting to play the victim. It is easy and convenient for them to complain they are not being treated professionally. It is much harder, but more important, to act aggressively to demonstrate to the public that what teachers do with children makes a difference. They can do this by finding ways to bring children’s work to their communities, and to bring community and business groups into their classrooms.

Finally, those of us who care about children have to speak out and organize on their behalf. For ultimately, children have the most to lose if the warning signs are not heeded. And if our children lose, we all lose.

A version of this article appeared in the October 03, 1990 edition of Education Week as When Reform Meets Recession