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Friday, September 23, 2011

In Florida public money used to pay for private schools yeilds poor returns

From the Miami Herald


It’s one thing to read or hear bad news. It’s another thing to see it firsthand when it affects your own child.

For the past few weeks, parents across the nation have been visiting their children’s new classrooms, and in many cases they have encountered disturbing changes. Maybe classes are more crowded than they were a year ago, or the school has dropped art, music, and languages. Perhaps students must now pay a fee to participate in sports and other activities or after-school programs have been eliminated altogether. Possibly the school year, or even the school week, has been cut short.

Almost every school district in the nation is facing these situations, the inevitable effects of repeated cuts in education funding. As many as 280,000 education jobs are on the chopping block in local districts because of continued state budget constraints. Over the past three years school district layoffs have accelerated, more than tripling since 2008. This is not only a drag on our fragile economy, it’s a severe setback to students.

The problem is especially critical in Florida, where state education funding was slashed by more than $1 billion for the current fiscal year, a drop of almost 8 percent. Even before that latest round of cuts, Florida ranked 50th among the states in per-capita spending on education. That poor investment has yielded poor returns — 44th in the high school graduation rate and 48th in college entrance exam scores.

To make things even worse, education funding is increasingly being diverted from public schools to pay for vouchers and private contractors. According to an analysis by the Campaign for America’s Future, this diversion of education funds to private use is occurring more frequently in Florida than in any other state.

There is no way to absorb these cuts without harming students, and that’s exactly what is happening right now as the new school year gets under way. I have been visiting schools across the nation, including some in Central and South Florida. I have seen some exciting efforts to transform schools that were struggling, but I have also heard how funding cuts are affecting students, and South Florida is no exception.

Broward County schools have lost 1,100 positions, and many elementary schools have eliminated music, art and physical-fitness programs. In Miami-Dade County, college-prep class sizes have soared to more than 30 students, and after-school programs that served thousands of students have been cut.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In the short term our schools need emergency federal help to recoup essential staff. We also should take advantage of historically low interest rates to finance the renovation of outmoded public schools, including community colleges. The average public school building in the United States is more than 40 years old, and conditions in many of these structures are a distraction or worse for students.

In the long term, we must hold elected officials accountable for meeting their responsibilities to educate our children. And parents must understand that their own responsibility doesn’t end when Back to School Night is over, or even when they help their child with homework.

Parents and other concerned people in our communities must speak up for our public schools.

Many parents are seeing for the first time how education cuts affect their own children. They are realizing that education policies are not mere political rhetoric — they are choices that have real consequences. Parents are coming to understand that a budget expresses a state’s priorities — and they don’t like the fact that Florida is at the bottom in per-capita education funding, but near the top in prison funding. Now parents must act on this knowledge and become involved. They must speak up for the needs of their own children by supporting adequate funding of our public schools.

Dennis Van Roekel is president of the National Education Association and a former high school math teacher.

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