Aristotle got it right when he said, “All who have meditated on the art of governing mankind have been convinced that the fate of empires depends on the education of youth.” Once upon a time America professed to believe in a strong public education system—at least for some children. And we still talk about public education as the great equalizer and pathway out of poverty but continue to fall far short in assuring millions of poor children, especially those of color, upward mobility.
As if children and families were not suffering enough during this economic downturn, many states are choosing to balance budgets on the backs of children and to shift more costs away from government onto children and families who have fewer means to bear them. That is a shameful trend in public education today. Even when students are in school, they’re getting less than they used to. Of the 46 states that publish data in a manner allowing historical comparisons, 37 are providing less funding per student to local school districts this school year than they provided last year, and 30 are providing less funding than they did four years ago. Seventeen states have cut per-student funding more than 10 percent from pre-recession levels, and four—South Carolina, Arizona, California, and Hawaii—have reduced per student funding for K-12 schools more than 20 percent.
These cuts have major effects on critical learning opportunities. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has found funding cuts in Georgia will mean shortening the pre-kindergarten school year from 180 to 160 days for 86,000 four-year-olds. Since the start of the recession, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Texas, and other states have cut funding from early education programs to help close budget shortfalls. New Jersey cut funding for afterschool programs. In a 2009 survey of California parents, 41 percent reported their child’s school was cutting summer programs. Cuts limiting student learning time are likely to intensify in the coming year. An American Association of School Administrators survey reports 17 percent of respondents were considering shortening the school week to four days for the 2011-2012 school year and 40 percent were considering eliminating summer school programs. Summer learning loss is a major contributor to the achievement gap between poor and nonpoor children. Districts across the country are beginning to cut extracurricular activities and to charge fees for supplies like biology safety goggles or printer ink.
These education cuts come at a time when American education is in dire straits. The United States ranks 24th among 30 developed countries in overall educational achievement for 15-year-olds. A study of education systems in 60 countries ranks the United States 31st in math achievement and 23rd in science achievement for 15-year-olds. More than 60 percent of all fourth, eighth, and 12th grade public school students in every racial and income group are reading or doing math below grade level. Nearly 80 percent or more of Black and Hispanic students in these grades are reading or doing math below grade level. A recent report by the Education Trust notes more than one in five high school graduates don’t meet the minimum standard required for Army enlistment as measured by the Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT). Among applicants of color, the ineligibility rates are even higher: 29 percent of Hispanics and 39 percent of African Americans are ineligible based on their AFQT scores.
Children should be getting more quality instructional time, not less, to prepare to compete in the rapidly globalizing economy. Instead they’re being held back and provided less school days and hours by stopgap solutions to budget problems they didn’t cause. Too many adults seem to lack a moral, common, and fiscal sense context for making decisions about what to cut and what to invest in. The Children’s Defense Fund’s first publication in 1974 was on Children Out of School in America. We documented two million children not enrolled in school, including hundreds of thousands of children with disabilities. As we went door to door interviewing thousands of families in 30 census tracts for that initial study, we never thought to ask the question, “Is your child home today because her school is closed to help balance your district’s budget?”
At the Children’s Defense Fund we believe education is a basic human right and an essential tool for evening the odds for all children and promoting upward mobility for children left behind. Education gives you the tools to improve not only your own life but the lives of others and to leave the world better than you found it. How can we expect our children to create a better America if we don’t give them a good education? Cuts being proposed in Washington and in the states and localities around the country may be saving a few dollars on a balance sheet today—but they will cost us dearly tomorrow as a nation. How shortsighted we are. Where are our priorities? What are our values?