Going to PTA meetings these days can be incredibly depressing. Most of last school year's meetings were filled with the "doom and gloom" of the impending cuts to 81 of our district's teachers, 6 from our school alone. PTA Board members and parent volunteers worked their butts off to raise money to cover things that we all took for granted as kids - art, music and phys ed classes, field trips and assemblies.
Over the summer, several of our classrooms were overhauled to make room for more students, as the class size mandate has gone from 25 to 30. While there were 4 full size 1st grade groups last year, there are now 3 full size second grade groups. When I was in elementary school, there were usually 30 kids in a class, so I don't think the size itself is as big of an issue. But we also had art class once a week, music twice a week and phys ed twice a week, in a separate classroom (or gym) led by a separate instructor. (Yes, this was public school.) The teacher had that break each day to count on.
Initial news at the beginning of this school year is not much better. As our school continues to struggle to get its fair share of funding and state dollars, more programs are in danger of being cut, due to lack of funds or a lack of volunteers. Art and music programs, once funded directly through the state and the school districts are now being left up to parents and the PTAs to keep alive.
As school starts this week, just 8 short weeks since the last school year ended, I can't help but wonder what is going on around here. While understanding that "times they are a'changin'," I can't help but compare my elementary educational experience with the one that my daughter is getting, and can only hope that she will fare o.k. I already mentioned that we had gym, art and music on a weekly basis. On top of that, there was no such thing as "minimum days." We did not have "early dismissal," a week long fall break, or an almost 4 week long holiday break. We had 1 day of school off during each 1/2 of the year for parent-teacher conferences and another day off for "staff planning day" or "teacher in-service" day, 2 weeks at Christmas and 1 week for Spring Break. (If we were lucky, we got Snow Days in the winter.)
Back in "those days," we shopped for our own school supplies too. Each year when class lists went up, we scrambled for those supply lists and happily went trekking off to KMart or Hills (a mid-west retail Target-type store.) We brought our own crayons, pencils, pens and glue to school, based on what the teacher said we would need. In some classrooms, each student brought a box of tissues, which were used throughout the year.
Looking back over that last few paragraphs, it seems as though I'm talking of days "long ago," when in reality, it wasn't that long ago. (Was it?) I can't be that old, right? Apparently, I am.
In today's world of budget cuts and economic downturn, of raising taxes and decreasing benefits, it seems that the schools are feeling the pinch more than others. I can't help but wonder what our elected officials are doing with that money - it has to be going somewhere, right?. Goodness knows that they aren't spending it on the education system. Add to that the cuts to the Court systems that have been ongoing over the past 3 years and I think we have a recipe for disaster.
I don't pretend to have a solution. I do have questions - lots of questions. I researched the use of lottery funds a few weeks ago, since that was supposed to help education years ago. If you are curious, Google it yourself, but the short and quick answer that I found was that the money put out by the lottery is a drop in the bucket compared to the money schools apparently need to run each year, and in some cases is barely noticed. (By the way, the financials for the LA Unified School District are staggering.)
One question I posed to the school principal (and a few other parents) at the end of last year - why is the school or the teachers purchasing the basic supplies for students to use in class? I was told by someone that it was a way to maintain uniformity among the supplies. Another answer I got was that it lessened the likelihood of embarrassment for that student or students who could not afford supplies. To that I say "Hogwash!" There is not a valid reason out there that I can think of for our school or the teachers to be spending money on students' supplies that they can just as easily go out and purchase themselves. At Wal-Mart last week, you could buy a box of 24 crayola crayons for $.50. A pencil box was going for $.99. There are low cost options. And in the limited situations when a student can't afford everything they might need, then the school or teacher could have a small supply on hand to help out that student. I just do not see the need for the school to go out and purchase 900 bottles of Elmer's glue, when there are other things better suited for those funds. As a parent volunteer last year, I spent a good 1/2 hour one day (towards the end of the school year) searching for white paper to make copies. Yes, white-paper-to-make-copies. There was not any and according to one of the teachers, it was in high demand. Newsprint for art projects was something else apparently hard to come by.
You have to wonder if the public education system is putting itself out of business. The economy takes a down-turn and the government raises taxes. People can't afford to continue living in their neighborhood because of the property values and taxes, so they move, taking their kids with them. At the same time, the public school systems declare that they cannot afford to pay for art teachers or music programs or gym teachers. Those same school systems operate an annual budget based largely on the state "ADA" rate (Average Daily Attendance - the school gets paid a per student, per day rate based on attendance.) Parents, frustrated that their children are not getting the same well-rounded, quality education that they once got, which included art, music and gym, a library that was staffed and had newer books, seek other options - charter schools and private institutions. Despite the expense, some parents believe that it is worth it to pay for an education that includes those things. As the enrollment numbers in the public schools drop, so does the money from the state, causing further cuts. It is a vicious cycle with no end in site - other than possibly the privatization of the entire public school system.
I shudder to think how things are going to look 5 or 10 years from now. We moved to this area because the schools were supposed to be better than LAUSD and because there were many young families with lots of school-age children here. We moved to a neighborhood where the school is literally down the block and we can walk our daughter to school. We heard good things from friends in the area and we have liked things so far. But I worry as things continue to decline and parents are asked to raise more and more money to cover these programs that are being cut, assemblies, field trips, busing... and the list goes on.
As I said before, I don't have a solution and the search for answers has been difficult. Perhaps the first step is to have people, even those without school-age children, realize what is being cut, to realize what the state is paying for and what parent organizations and volunteers are raising money for. Then maybe we can start working towards other solutions. But in the meantime, I also think we, as parents, can step up and pay for some crayons and pencils and glue. It is a small step, but it could be an important one.