Students’ Response to School Budget Cuts
Notes from the Field
Submitted by Angela Chan
When I decided to teach, I believed that the betterment of our nation depends on growing compassionate and caring citizens, and on creating an engaged citizenry that must include even those who live in the poorest communities. As a public and as a nation, we have determined education to be so important to the common good that we would collectively fund it for all children. I thought, what better way to invest my life and energy than to be a public servant, to do the important work of educating our young, and not just to do this work anywhere, but to commit to those communities and schools with the least resources.
The last few years of budget cuts to public education has shaken my belief that our country and political leaders value the well being of every single child, rich or poor. Across school buildings in Philadelphia, staff will hear their principals say, “We have a limited budget for next year. We only have enough money for a principal and enough teachers for every class. We don’t have any funds for books or supplies.”
Many who do not work in schools have only minimal understanding of the implications of the reality of those words. For the last two years, my students have lost some of their favorite teachers: our school police officer, a full-time technology teacher, and bilingual counseling assistants who have worked with us for years. Now we must tell our students that they might lose everyone else who is not a teacher. Next year, we, along with all public schools in Philadelphia, might not have a Dean of Students, an office staff, a counselor, an instrumental music program, noon time aides who supervise lunch and recess, extracurricular activities including sports, and books and supplies.
I struggled to help my students understand this senseless predicament. Our children come to school everyday expecting to be in a place of learning. How do we explain that we lack even the basics to sustain our schools? My students are smart, and they understand fairness. Sooner or later, they will make the connection between what is happening to their schools and how this can come to happen. They will come to understand marginalization and know that some groups do not matter in the grand scheme of our nation’s operation.
When I broke this news to my students, many began to shed tears, but only for a moment. For the next few days, it was evident they believed in the power of their efforts and truly wanted to do whatever they could to effect change. My students transformed their tears into problem-solving mode. They debated whether to have a car wash or lemonade stand in order to raise funds. They wanted to do a bake sale. They wanted to know how much money they would need to raise in order to keep their counselor.
To help them wrap their minds around the gaping hole in the budget, I wrote the amount, $300,000,000, on the board, and explained to them that more money would have to come from elsewhere, though I really appreciated their passion and their activism. One of my students then said, “So what! We want to change the world with our little lives!….We have little minds in here!” while she pointed a finger to the side of her head. Another student chimed in, “Imagine what would happen if we put all our minds together!”
My students have not been deterred by the $300 million figure, partially from lack of understanding of how huge it is. The next day, I noticed that some students were passing around a discarded tissue box. They were collecting change from their classmates in order to plug the hole in the District’s budget. Their action, while insignificant to reducing the deficit, is a gesture that reflects their belief in the importance of education in their lives, and I am proud of them for taking ownership of their education.
The other day while taking part in the PFT informational picketing, I offered a flier about the budget cuts to a man who seemed to be on his way to work. He quickly said, “No thanks, my children are in Catholic school” and walked away without looking back. This man’s comment stayed with me because it is symbolic of what is happening to public education. In the eyes of many of us who work tirelessly to serve the most needy, we no longer have a public that collectively believes in the duty to educate all children. The message is that the lives of a segment of the population, those who live in certain neighborhoods and who attend the poorest schools, do not matter.
What does it say about us as a people if we value the lives of some over the lives of others? A nation cannot be great unless we tap into the unlimited potential of all young citizens. In a democracy, all lives matter and are equal. How we decide to fund public education speaks to whether or not we believe this to be true. My students begged for the opportunity to advocate for themselves and for their education. They asked me to imagine what they can do when they take collective action. Please make a commitment to invest in the lives of my students. Give them the chance to blossom, and their energy, talents, and intellect will become a gift to their communities and to our nation.