Saturday, July 31, 2010

A Response From A Teacher to President Barack Obama's Speech on Educational Reform

Race to the Top

I don't think that I am the only teacher in this country that feels that we are witnessing the crumbling of our schools, in real time, as each day goes by. Here in California each day passes and the state fiddles around in Sacramento with no hope of a budget in sight. This means our districts can't plan rationally for the new school year that is only a few weeks away for most of us. In this county over one hundred teachers have been let go over the last two years, with children in most districts facing larger and larger class sizes. Hard fought reforms in class size reduction in kindergarten through third grade classrooms are being tossed by the wayside as districts across the state now struggle to provide minimum services to students. All over the state teachers are being asked to give back, on health care, step increases, funding for classroom supplies, and on and on. Yet, we are still under the thumb of No Child Left Behind, all of us feeling the pressure to improve or maintain our API numbers and AYP status, as help from Washington stagnates in the summer heat.

So, I listened with interest, but diminishing hope, to President Obama's speech about education this last week. I watched it three times, and read and annotated the text. My reaction was not positive. Time is wasting, we need help now, and there is no relief in sight.

In the very beginning of the speech, and not in particular relation to the topic of Race to the Top (RTT), President Obama briefly mentions the foreclosure crisis that is ongoing. This is where I'll begin, because most districts across the United States still get a substantial amount of funding from property taxes. All over the US home values are declining, and the foreclosure of a home in your neighborhood can undercut the value of all the other homes. This can result in the assessed valuation of the homes to decline, which results in less tax revenue, and that results in less funding for schools. Regardless of what President Obama labels as important, there is one thing that is irrevocably true. No district in the United States can meet any reasonable educational standards without adequate funding. I don't think there is a single school district in this state, today,  that could accurately describe its financial circumstances as adequate.

So, in the hard light of reality,  RTT is useless. The disastrous situation at hand has outstripped any relevance that RTT might have had. Why is this? It is because RTT only has about five billion dollars to distribute. This is now not even a drop in the bucket. Currently, in California alone, the biggest school districts in the state (Los Angeles, San Diego, Oakland, Sacramento, San Francisco, etc.) are looking at combined deficits of over one billion dollars, one fifth of the RTT funds. Yet, in this round of RTT funding,  the entire state is only eligible for about $700 million in grants. In order to even be eligible ("compete" as President Obama says, triggering uncomfortable feelings about beating some other deserving school districts in this very much unwanted race) the State of California's K-12 system has spent some unknown millions of dollars jumping through RTT hoops, perhaps for naught. Now it has been announced that the State of California has attained eligibility. What does that mean? Maybe nothing, as eligibility does not guarantee that the state will actually see any of the money. Even if we do get some of it, it will not go far given the huge hole we are in.

Yet, throughout the speech the President lauded this paltry five billion dollar RTT program as "the single most important thing" being done for education, apparently in the history of the United States. Late in the speech he acknowledges the overall financial plight of schools and teacher layoffs ( "like saving teachers’ jobs across this country from layoffs") and pledges to help. In the haze of early summer, it may have escaped many that the Congress was considering an emergency aid package of over $20 billion to avoid teacher layoffs, but the Republicans easily defeated this, by asking why more money should be appropriated, when most of the rather small amount of five billion dollars for RTT was still languishing in the government coffers two years after it was appropriated.

President Obama also characterizes the response to RTT as enthusiastic ( "For the most part, states, educators, reformers, they’ve responded with great enthusiasm"). Why does this ring false? Could it be because of the states that have completely dropped out of RTT in frustration? Perhaps because, at this point, with so much at stake, we are starting to feel, as teachers, like we're being taken for another ride (NCLB, Whole Language, etc.)? Personally, my own vision of this process of getting RTT funds looks more like a sad line of state education superintendents, all tattered Oliver Twists, approaching the stern headmaster, Arne Duncan, raising their empty bowls, and asking, "Please, sir, can I have some more?" Desperation can certainly result in feigned enthusiasm.

Much of President Obama's speech is filled with truisms and platitudes with which no educator would ever disagree. We all want what is best for the children of America. We all dream of a day when education will be fully funded, and the needs of all students can be met in our classrooms, and when teachers are respected as professionals. Of course it is absurd to repeat the mistakes of the past and expect different results. But, his statement "Our children get only one chance at an education, so we need to get it right" struck a real chord with me. Most teachers, in a few weeks, will be looking at a group of new students walking into classrooms all across the United States, and RTT funding will not be present in the vast majority of those classrooms, leaving the teacher, once again, to scrape up whatever he or she can to make the year a success for those students, and "get it right." And, if sufficient real funding is not found quickly, the possible educational outcomes for all those children can only get worse and getting it right will become an unobtainable dream.

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