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The Progressive

Back to School During Budget Cuts

Our family is lucky. Our kids attend a school with a lot of low-income children. In addition to some truly enriching exposure to other languages and cultures, our daughters benefit from an atmosphere that is relatively free of the snarky fashion police that plague many middle-class American girls' lives. Best of all, as a school with 60 percent of students on free and reduced lunch, we get small class sizes. Up until third grade, classes are capped at 15 students. That means our kids, along with their classmates, get some great attention from teachers who are not stressed out and overwhelmed.

My first grader started the year last week with only a dozen other students in her class, and a teacher who has a degree in early childhood education and has continued to take classes and keep up with the latest research on creative ways to teach and learn.

My fourth grader is also lucky in her teacher and her school. But this year, the small class sizes ended. She moved from 13 students in class last year to this year's 27. She mentioned it every time she talked about her first day: Guess how many kids are in my class?

We are lucky, like I said, that our kids haven't had 27 students and one overwhelmed teacher since kidergarten. By fourth grade it's not as hard to take.

But this year, the program that keeps class sizes small in schools like ours is threatened.

Classes that used to be capped at 15 students may go up to 18, and the program may get eliminated altogether in some cases.

And that is just one small sign of a general trend that is slashing school resources and taking a big toll on kids.

Things are not moving in the right direction. As school resources shrink, class sizes are ballooning, budget cuts are an annual reality, and the political will to change this situation is sadly lacking.

Jake Berg, a Waukesha, Wisconsin, high school student, has produced a moving eight-minute video which he entered in the C-SPAN Student Cam Competition--documenting deep cuts in the schools in his district, the state, and the nation.

The saddest moment in the video comes when a teacher tells Berg how wonderful it was when her school had support staff in the building--a psychologist, a guidance counselor, and a librarian--who helped the kids, including the little girl in her class last year whose brother committed suicide, and who had no one but her teacher to talk to about it.

The cuts affect children with special needs, gifted kids, and everyone else.

Hence the turnout at a Milwaukee school board budget committee meeting last spring by children so young they had to stand on a block to reach the microphone and plead with the superintendent not to get rid of their music teacher.

Unfortunately, President Obama's $87 billion in Race to the Top funding won't fill the gaps, or even begin to address what Berg describes as "increasing expenses, declining revenues and higher expectations."

In Wisconsin, one focus of activism is the "Penny for Kids" one-cent sales tax hike that would put an emergency band-aid on a broken school funding system that pits property-tax payers against kids every year.

Parents no longer tell their kids, "We didn't have that when I was in school," Berg says. Instead, it's the kids who won't experience the opportunities their parents had.

Maybe that's why activism by kids like Berg and the students who turned out in Milwaukee is so poignant: It's up to the kids to try to get the adults to do something about the brutal cuts to their education.

"The library's closed," Berg's teacher says sadly, at the end of the video.

It's enough to break your heart.

Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine, and opened the Progressive’s office in Washington, DC, during the Clinton Administration, where she made her debut as a political pundit on CNN’s Capital Gang Sunday and Fox News. Se moved to Oaxaca, Mexico, for a year in 2017, where she covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Donald Trump. Follow her on Twitter: @rconniff

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