On Thursday, March 16, the Trump administration released a preliminary budget plan for Fiscal 2018. This plan proposes huge increases in defense-related spending and corresponding cuts in domestic programs, including education. According to The Washington Post, the adjacent chart indicates the budgetary impact across government agencies and the U.S. Department of Education. Everyone in Berkshire County knows that the schools in our county are suffering from a progressive decrease in population. To make a long story short, decreasing population equates to decreasing federal funding to school districts.
How much does it cost to provide a high school math course? What about remedial English? How much does an Advanced Placement American History course cost? As the economic outlook on education continues to darken, school committees and school districts will be forced to look for ways to cut costs and they will no doubt, wrestle with some very difficult issues. That is exactly what is happening in Berkshire County.
So when does it make sense to keep classes small? When does it make sense to increase class size or combine classes in order to save money? These debates are often argued in the absence of the appropriate information. Do people making these decisions actually know what happens in the schools and more specifically what happens in the classrooms? Are they aware of the long-term repercussions of budget cuts, reallocating scarce resources or of having larger class sizes and larger student to teacher ratios?
This is not dissimilar to the situation with health care and health insurance. How often does an insurance company deny necessity and therefore deny payment for a medical test that a qualified medical doctor deems necessary? Is the person who denies this medical test/claim someone who has a working knowledge of medicine, disease and its symptoms? In an overwhelming number of cases the answer is no. But if insurance isn’t going to pay for that test, then it becomes more likely that you aren’t going to get that potentially life-saving test. The wrong people are sometimes making important decisions.
It’s been stated that a little bit of knowledge or information on a subject can actually be dangerous. This may be the case here – in medicine and in education. People who are not intimately involved in education are making important decisions that may be a detriment to the successful functioning of our schools, and potentially to taxpayers in the district.
Berkshire County has already seen some recent school closings such as the Cheshire School in North Adams and the Monterey School in Monterey. And there are others being discussed. When schools close, children lose. It’s that simple. It is, of course, true that this occurs when a town or village simply doesn’t have enough children to substantiate having a school – this is most commonly the case at the elementary school level. When a financial reason or a population issue forces a school to merge with another, this can result in larger classes, lower student-teacher ratios and increased burden and expectation on the teachers.
Anyone who has kept up with the local news lately knows that several Berkshire County school districts have struggled with their Fiscal Year 2018 budget and have had to make difficult cuts in order for the budgets to pass. It’s not a good situation for anyone, especially not for the schoolchildren. There’s a lot of finger pointing but the only real blame is on the fact that there is simply not enough money.
Take a look at the corresponding chart. When you combine the proposed cuts listed on the chart with an already difficult school budget situation, the result looks quite bleak. Federal funding to public schools should be going up. That’s an investment in the future. Trumps proposal instead cuts the Department of Education funding by 13%. According to The Washington Post, that amounts to a $9.2 billion cut. As you can see, significant programs are on the chopping block.
In addition to these cuts are a $2.4 billion cut to grants to states for teacher training and $43 million cuts to grants to colleges for teacher preparation. (I just want to add that financing to defense spending is going up!) What areas of education will succumb to the cuts? Arts? Music? Athletics? All of them? As it stands now for example, there are tennis courts at one of our areas public schools that are in very poor condition. It is not inexpensive to refurbish tennis courts and it’s alarmingly expensive to put in new ones if they are beyond repair. So what’s the answer? Continue to play on tennis courts that are considerably compromised? No longer offer tennis as an athletic team sport? That would be a substantial loss as tennis is a lifelong sport that many students will continue into adulthood.
What about the arts and music? Will these programs be cut, creating a huge imbalance in the elementary and secondary school educational experience? How can we expect our children to succeed when the tools and resources that they need keep getting diminished?
In addition to this, how many educational programs do young children now watch on their Public Broadcast System? How many valuable programs are brought to us by the National Endowment for the Arts? Or by the National Science Foundation? Their funding is being cut by 100%. This is a sad statement about what is valued by this administration. What is next?
The administration’s agenda on school choice however, is quite a different story. If you look at the accompanying chart, you’ll see that school choice funding is increasing. This delivers yet another painful and harmful blow to the public schools and their successful functioning. Money that is directed to charter schools or private schools is money taken from the public school system. It’s that simple.
This is real life and it’s scary. School committees are trying to keep budgets down even though costs are going up. Populations continue to dwindle as federal funding disappears, which places an increased burden on school tax payers.
Where and how will this end?