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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Why Do So Many Public Schools Constantly Have to Fight for Funding?

By Peter DeWitt — September 20, 2020 5 min read
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When COVID-19 came in like a tidal wave of panic in March of this year, schools around the world closed for what they thought would be for a few weeks, and those weeks turned into the remainder of the school year. In fact, UNESCO estimated that nearly 92 percent of students around the world who were enrolled in schools were suddenly in the position of learning from home.

“Equity” became one of the most used words in our vernacular at the time, and still now, because the responses to remote learning were textbook examples of schools that had resources and those that did not. Parents from wealthier schools struggled with what to do with too many resources (i.e., technology tools, websites, etc), and they even began creating learning pods for their children. However, students in high-poverty schools had to balance between becoming essential workers, taking care of their younger siblings, at the same time they had to work through learning paper packets.

And who can forget the memes?

Parents, some of whom were celebrities, created hilarious memes that were also shoutouts to teachers, focusing on how their children already hated being home schooled after two minutes. Those of us who were teachers or are currently teaching and leading in schools felt a sigh of relief that the public, who often criticized us for not being good enough, seemed to finally understand teaching as the rewarding challenge that it is every day. There were even celebrities calling for teachers to make seven-figure salaries.

Apparently, all of those memes were offering short-lived support.

Why? Here we are a few months later, still living through COVID with most children back in schools for a hybrid or remote experience (UNESCO reports around 50 percent of students living in countries with partial or full closures). Instead of those seven-figure salaries that people said teachers should be given, there are many teachers being given pink slips. In fact, Michael Griffith from the Learning Policy Institute finds that, “A 15 percent reduction in state education funding could lead to the loss of more than 300,000 teaching positions, according to an analysis from the Learning Policy Institute.”

Same Old Story. Different Year.
Once again, public schools find themselves dealing with budget cuts. Some districts are telling 10 to 20 of their teachers they may be losing their jobs, and other larger districts are getting pink slips ready for hundreds of their teachers and leaders. Teachers and leaders who scrambled to become remote teachers with very little training in March; who were being thanked on social media by parents and countless celebrities who said that they were worth millions of dollars for doing the job of teaching every day. They, after all of their hard work and dedication, are looking at unemployment.

This is not new news, and it certainly isn’t fake news, either. In this article A Punishing Decade for School Funding (written in 2017), Leachman et. al wrote,

Public investment in K-12 schools—crucial for communities to thrive and the U.S. economy to offer broad opportunity—has declined dramatically in a number of states over the last decade. Worse, some of the deepest-cutting states have also cut income tax rates, weakening their main revenue source for supporting schools.

Leachman et. al went on to write,

Most states cut school funding after the recession hit, and it took years for states to restore their funding to pre-recession levels. In 2015, the latest year for which comprehensive spending data are available from the U.S. Census Bureau, 29 states were still providing less total school funding per student than they were in 2008.

And although funding for schools began to rise again, we are now in a position where more and more states are warning that they will be cutting 10 percent or 20 percent from funding for schools. Sadly, schools with predominantly Black and Brown students experience more budget cuts than those with their white peers. In fact, in this Education Week guest post, Brookings Institute’s Andre Perry writes, “schools predominated by students of color receive an annual $23 billion less than majority-white institutions.”

Why Don’t We Value Schools?
I began teaching in 1995, and as I made my way through teaching in mostly higher-poverty schools, the budget vote in the spring was always a nerve-wracking time, especially as a new teacher. A vote of “No” on a budget ensured that there would be a loss of teaching jobs for the fall of the next school year. You never really felt safe.

As a school principal, I worked in a district that dealt with millions of dollars of budget cuts over several years, which resulted in a cut to programs, the laying off of teachers, and the closure of schools. Through each of those years, whether I was a teacher or a principal, it was often said that taxpayers do not often get a chance to vote something down, because they are often voting between what they may see as a lesser of two evils in political elections, but a school budget vote was a place where they could flat out say no. After all, with the way that schools are funded, it falls on the backs of taxpayers, and they let schools know their opinion every spring.

During COVID, and when the debates on whether students needed to go back to school in person rather than remote seemed to never end, the public outcry was that children needed to go back to school. It was said that teachers, leaders. and schools were the backbone of getting the economy up and running again, and that our children need to learn because they will not be ready for university or life. And then as soon as students went back to school, the conversation again focused on how much funding could be cut to schools and that teachers and leaders make too much money.

What an epic change in dialogue from the spring.

In the End
The United States is one of the richest countries in the world, and yet year after year, while corporate executives get multimillion-dollar bonuses (read more about that here in Reuters and here in the NY Times), many public schools beg for scraps. Public schools feel the pressure of taking students in no matter the circumstances and ability level because it’s their job, at the same time they get all of the criticisms if students are not prepared.

Most countries that do well internationally also happen to get full funding, and they most certainly get public support during non-COVID and COVID times. It’s hard for teachers and leaders to always focus on student learning at the same time they have to constantly worry about having proper resources and whether the teacher in the room next to us will continue to have a job. Schools are the backbone of our society, and for that reason alone, they should not have to fight for funding every single year.

Where are all of those supportive and funny memes now?

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D., is an independent consultant and the author of several books including his newest release Instructional Leadership: Creating Practice Out Of Theory (2020). Connect with him on Twitter or through his YouTube channel. He is the moderator of Education Week’s A Seat At the Table.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground 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.