Well, hey. The Latest Great Recession is supposed to be ending, the rising tide lifting all the boats back to where we were in 2007, before Wall Street blew a hole in the bottom of the ocean.
So why do so many people who work in schools feel as if they are sitting at the bottom of the bay?
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has confirmed what other folks know—spending on public education has still not bounced back from the Latest Great Recession. Twenty-three states are still spending less per student than they did in 2008.
I’m in Pennsylvania, a state that has supposedly increased spending since 2008, but what Pennsylvania mostly did was come up with some creative accounting.
Under Governor Corbett, we used stimulus money to plug a drop in education school spending and then we started counting pension payments as “education funding.”
This is Pennsylvania’s unique approach to a national puzzle—how state governments can spend less on public education without actually saying so. Every state has its own version of smoke and mirrors, because no one wants to run for office on a platform of “Let’s spend less money on our children’s education!”
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In Pennsylvania, the ebbing of state spending lowered all ships, leaving local districts to make up the difference. Rich districts could dig a little deeper, and that was an easy sell because it was often framed as “saving” particular programs—wouldn’t you pay an extra $10 a year to keep an award-winning arts program in place?
But poor districts don’t have deep enough pockets to make up the difference. Combine that with the effect of the recession on communities—shutting down businesses, vaporizing property values—and we are left with poor communities that get poorer as the state abandons cash-strapped schools. Last year, while some districts were figuring out how to maintain arts programs, Erie City Schools were discussing the idea of simply closing all the high schools in the district.
The failure to bring back school support to 2008 levels means that schools have spent eight years trying to cut their way to health. That means new programs have not been launched, and when new mandates come from the state capital, there is zero chance of whipping up enthusiastic local support for them because everyone knows that a new program means an old program must bite the dust.
Some schools, in trying to avoid the pain, have prolonged it. Maybe we can just squeak by this year and next year things will be better, they think. But then next year comes, and funding doesn’t, and so every year means more cuts, more unfilled positions, more necessary spending unaddressed.
And that is corrosive for morale. Schools across the country are learning to live with a scarcity mindset. Why even think of new ideas? There won’t be money for them. Unfilled positions mean larger classes and heavier workloads for teachers, even as more demands are made to make test numbers. And if you are starting to feel stress about how you’ll support your family on a paycheck that is shrinking in real dollars, there’s no end in sight for that.
Do more with less. After eight years, many schools are accepting this as the new normal. The rising tide is lifting some boats, but schools remain anchored to the ocean floor, the crew drowning and the precious cargo lost.