Category Archives: U.S. Education

Staunching public education’s decline

Please fully fund our schools!“Made the ‘Fund Our Schools’ poster?” Check. “Wearing the requested blue clothing?” Check. “Know where to go? Confirmed the time?” Check. And check. A few dozen Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) parents appear to have worked through this checklist on Tuesday morning. During a heavier-than-expected snowfall, these FCPS parents joined FCPS School Board members in a rally to push for additional funding for public schools in the county. The rally took place ahead of a county Board of Supervisors meeting at which the FY 2015 budget was presented.

With 184,500 students and 23,000 staff, FCPS is the eleventh largest school district in the country and the largest in the state of Virginia. For many, my family included, FCPS’s reputation for quality public education is the draw card in wanting to live here. Student numbers keep swelling—adding an estimated 3,000 new students per annum—as the county continues to attract immigrant and other families wanting their children to attend its vaunted public schools. Enrolment in FCPS schools has increased 8.9 percent, or by about 15,000 students, since 2009. But funding has only increased 5.6 percent. Many of the new enrollees also need additional services from the county, such as English language instruction and/or reduced price or free school meals.

Earlier this year, newly appointed FCPS Superintendent Karen Garza presented the school system’s FY 2015 budget. The $2.5 billion budget called for increased funding, while also incorporating significant cuts. The largest portion of the budget would go toward increasing teachers’ salaries. FCPS teaching salaries no longer compare favourably with those of nearby counties. Teachers’ pay here has been stagnant for five years and take-home pay has even declined due to mandatory contributions to the previously underfunded state pension system. The upshot is that, for example, 70 percent of the teachers at our local high school reportedly need to supplement their income during the school year. For FCPS to retain the best teachers, especially younger teachers, salary hikes are seen as essential.

Simultaneously, Dr. Garza proposed eliminating 731 staff positions, including 469 classroom positions and school support positions such as 12 assistant principal jobs. Reductions in staff positions would have the highly controversial consequence of increasing class sizes yet again, for the third time in recent years. Classes would have to be increased by an average of half a student per elementary and middle school class and by one student per high school class. Many parents complain that FCPS classes are already too full, with over 30 students per class being the norm too often.

Garza stresses that present funding levels do not support taking on both short and long-term problems. In fact, bar receiving additional funding, the only way in which the vital salary hikes could be at least partially implemented would be by making really dramatic cuts in support staff, increasing class sizes yet further, and narrowing the curriculum by perhaps eliminating the elementary-school foreign language program.

So Garza has called for increased funding to the tune of $98 million, or a 5.7 percent increase, in the allotment of taxpayer funding the county transfers to the school system. But, at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, County Executive Ed Long proposed only a two percent increase in funding for FCPS operations, leaving a gap of $63.8 million in FCPS’s advertised budget. Chairman of the Board of Supervisors Sharon Bulova then suggested that, in consultation with her colleagues, she would consider a higher advertised property tax rate to support more funding for schools and other services.

Approximately 51 percent of the county’s budget goes toward the school system. This funding from the county comprises 70 percent of the school system’s income. FCPS receives only 15 percent of its funding from the state. Yet Northern Virginia, including Fairfax County, is the most populous part of Virginia and so contributes most to state coffers. It certainly doesn’t get an equivalent ratio back in spend, especially not for its schools. In terms of the Virginia Department of Education’s Local Composite Index, FCPS received $1,855 per pupil in state aid, whereas the state average was $3,420 per pupil. Public education advocates in the county want separate taxing authority or other streams of income for FCPS that are not subject to the vagaries of the state or county budget processes.

In the main, I have been impressed with the FCPS system. While of course not universally so, there are many phenomenally dedicated, passionate teachers who really look out for their students and care deeply about their progress. As a FCPS parent, I definitely support FCPS teachers getting deserved raises, a measure that would boost morale and commitment. Overall though, I do feel that FCPS is a system under strain, with unquestionable fraying at the edges. Clearly, larger sums of money are needed to address some of the infrastructure issues. Schools are at full capacity and many are beyond capacity. I am still surprised by the widespread use of trailers (euphemistically called “villas” at a local school…) for classrooms.

Universal public primary and secondary school education is a bedrock of American society. It sustains and resupplies America’s middle class. It skills and acculturates newly arrived immigrants—even while it doesn’t do enough to close the achievement gap between poor Americans and those from higher income levels. Ninety percent of American school children are educated in public schools today. If there isn’t the will and support to fund public schools more fully, the future is grim.

A risk-averse society?

This isn't treacherous, is it?A significant snowstorm this past Tuesday, followed by days of atypical sub-zero temperatures, resulted in schools being closed across the Washington metro area. In Northern Virginia, officials of Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) cancelled school from Tuesday to Thursday, and delayed the start by two hours on Friday. This was welcome news for those in FCPS wanting a respite from the routine of school. But it was controversial for others, including this FCPS parent. Monday had also been a day off from school; it was the public holiday honouring Martin Luther King, Jr.

Officials in neighbouring counties reacted differently to the snow and subsequent deep freeze: further west in Loudoun County, school was cancelled for all four weekdays, reflecting the higher quantity of fallen snow there and the difficulty of clearing snow off its more rural, sometimes hilly roads. In Montgomery County to the north and Alexandria and Arlington Counties to the east, as well as in the District of Columbia itself, schools were closed for Tuesday and Wednesday, and delayed for two hours on Thursday.

Some in our county were incredulous when FCPS cancelled school the third day. A delayed start seemed a more appropriate response. The usual two-hour delay would have ensured that school goers walked to school or bus stops in daylight, not the usual darkness of January mornings, and would thus have been able to see most icy patches or other obstacles en route. Cancelling school entirely was an over-reaction—albeit a revealing one.

Sensitive to criticism of their decision on Thursday’s closure, when announcing Friday’s delayed start, FCPS officials noted, a little defensively, “FCPS’ primary concern is always student safety when making a decision about opening or delaying schools. In addition to considering information from a range of public safety sources, FCPS transportation supervisors travel the routes our buses would traverse and inspect bus stops and the pathways that will be used by walkers. When there are areas in the county that are considered unsafe or treacherous, schools are closed.”

Friday’s delayed start was not incident free. FCPS acknowledged in an email sent to parents shortly after 9 a.m. that it was “experiencing significant mechanical problems with a number of buses across the county … due to the freezing temperatures. Some of these buses will be late picking up students; some may be very late. Parents are advised to take precautions to ensure that their children are not standing outside in the cold for extended periods of time. Mechanics, transportation supervisors, and drivers are working to the best of their ability to get the buses running and on time”.

Undoubtedly there are people who will criticize FCPS for Friday’s delayed start and suggest that schools should have remained closed on Friday too. They might say that so many buses with mechanical issues due to the low temperatures prove the decision to have school, albeit delayed, unwise.

I am definitely one of those who felt resuming an as-regular-as-possible school schedule should have been attempted, with a delayed start, on the Thursday already. Certainly, it was extremely cold. One is reminded of the expression, “There’s no such thing as bad weather; there’s only bad clothing”. Most living in this region would have adequate protective clothing; winter here typically does include really chilly days, although temperatures as consistently low as they’ve been over the last days are unusual. The curious unwillingness of teenagers to wear jackets is obviously not a reason to cancel school.

The over-cautious decisions from FCPS reflect a broader tendency in U.S. society—the general widespread adoption of risk aversion policies and processes. FCPS officials are terrified of the possibility of being sued. Whether this could be for an accident involving a FCPS student falling on an icy sidewalk or pavement at a school, or, heaven forbid, being hit by a car sliding on ice, or, I hate to suggest it, a bus accident with elementary school children on board, or some other horrible scenario. FCPS officials cannot entertain the possibility of being liable. So instead hyper-conservative decisions are made.

Risk avoidance is endemic in the United States. There are signs everywhere disclaiming responsibility for this or that—or warning that use of whatever is at people’s own discretion. One is forever signing indemnity forms absolving others of any responsibility for anything. Lawyers predicate far too much behaviour in this society.

There are, of course, profound anomalies to this society-wide aversion to risk. Promiscuous gun laws in the United States are, to my mind, the most baffling contradiction to this excessive concern with safety. The ease with which guns can be purchased, plus the way in which they can be concealed and carried in everyday life, are aspects of U.S. society I struggle to understand. The presence of a firearm by definition always escalates the chance of any situation spiralling out of control and compromising people’s safety.

Life is full of freak, random events. It is impossible to control for everything. Surely school children would be better served by not being too sheltered but by being exposed to some risks and learning coping mechanisms? More exposure to adversity and less cossetting would help childrens’ coping and social skills.

“S-c-h-o-o-l’s out…for…summer!”

Those iconic yellow school buses really do transport American children to and from school every day; they are not Hollywood fiction. But the buses are not currently lumbering through American communities to collect or discharge riders. The 2011–12 school year is over; the long summer vacation is underway.

The buses symbolize the fundamental principle that education should be accessible to all. Education is the great leveler in society, and access to local public school education is every American’s right. So local counties facilitate taking school-going children by bus to school each day and then bringing them home safely afterward. Lack of transport can never be the reason for children not attending school.

We live in Fairfax County in Northern Virginia. Fairfax County Public Schools maintains the largest school bus fleet of any U.S. school system, although it is the eleventh largest school district in the United States. The FCPS operating budget is $2.2 billion per annum. Over 175,000 students are enrolled in the system, giving an average annual expenditure of $12,820 per student. Fairfax County, one of the wealthiest U.S. counties, allocated an impressive 53.5% of its 2011 fiscal budget to the school system. Its well-regarded schools are the reason many are drawn to living in the county.

Yet, within the county, the quality of schools varies. The provision of transport to and from school masks the very unequal access to good community-based schools due to school boundary lines. School district boundaries determine eligibility to attend particular schools. These boundaries are not immutable, but are not easy to change or appeal. Which entity can change the boundaries varies from state to state. In Virginia, county school boards have the authority.

That old mantra for retail success—“location, location, location”—also sums up American public school education. Where one lives determines the quality of local schools. The wealthiest communities, usually in the suburbs, have the best public schools, while inner cities, some post-industrial suburban neighbourhoods, and poorer rural areas typically have the worst public schools. Put differently, property values correlate directly to the quality of local public schools. The academic achievement gap between children from high and low-income families is, unfortunately, well recognized. Although this gap is not only because higher-income children have access to better schools, it does explain much of the phenomenon.  Degree of parental involvement; family type (e.g. single or two-parent home); and access to early childhood education, extra-curricular, and other literacy-enhancing activities are some of the other explanations that typically determine individual academic achievement.

Poor, middle-class, and wealthy children in theory receive the same education, but this ideal of equality remains elusive. Reform initiatives have sought to close the achievement gap by bringing competition, choice, and accountability into school systems. A significant change was the shift in the 1990s to include school choice. If a school was perceived as failing its students, those students could transfer to another school within the same school district, opt to attend an independently operated but tax-payer funded charter school, or receive a “voucher” to attend a private school (including faith-based schools). This resulted in an exponential growth in public charter schools, and the closing of failed neighbourhood schools.

Many aspects of the debate about closing the achievement gap and reforming the traditional American public school system resonate with this South African. The circumstances of the two countries are obviously different, yet there are huge similarities in the challenges. Discussions on turning around failing schools have particularly caught my attention, with the hopeful experience of post-Katrina New Orleans being especially instructive. The academic results of pre-Katrina New Orleans public school students on state tests were notoriously low. Test results have turned around in the last five years primarily because enrollment in charter schools has skyrocketed. In addition, decisions about schools, curriculum, hiring, and hours have been returned to parents and educators. A long-time veteran of Louisiana school reform suggests that “top-down efforts to reform a district don’t work; only by starting over school by school…[can] real improvement occur.”

Local and state jurisdiction over schooling is preferred in the United States; a federal role is always controversial. Indeed, many conservatives typically deny the federal government any role in education and urge the dismantling of the Department of Education.

National solutions to the conundrum of the achievement gap have varied through the years. President Barack Obama’s approach is encapsulated in “Race to the Top”. Obama has embraced new systems of evaluation: State applications for funding are scored on criteria such as satisfying performance-based standards for teachers and principals, showing progress in raising achievement and closing gaps, prioritizing STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) education, promoting charter schools, and computerization. The philosophy behind President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) policy was also standards-based educational reform. States had to develop assessments in basic skills—especially in reading and maths—under the assumption that having measurable goals would improve outcomes by exposing achievement gaps. Student achievement has to be measured and reported annually.  Obama’s Department of Education has offered states flexibility in meeting NCLB stipulations and waived requirements too.

“A Chance for Every Child”, the school reform vision of likely Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, pushes a voucher-heavy approach. He suggests that the parents of poor and special-education students would be able to choose a public, charter, or private school in their state, using a specified amount of public funds to cover (some of) the cost. The unclear aspect is whether such school choice would be within school district boundaries or would extend beyond. If it were the latter, this would be a truly seismic change. It would break the cycle whereby children in poorer urban schools are unable to attend better suburban schools. Romney would also return accountability to the states: He suggests that states would no longer have to meet the greatly disliked federal achievement requirements of Bush’s NCLB law.

Many American school children are now joyfully belting out Alice Cooper’s timeless ode to summer holidays. Yet the l-o-n-g summer vacation actually penalizes those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Those from poorer families are less likely to have the resources to spend on stimulating, enriching activities or extension programs. For many, the ten-week-long break is instead a period of stagnation and regression, and, for some in inner cities, perhaps even danger.