Huffpost Education
Lucia Graves Headshot

Cut Education Now, Pay Later: ‘What Does This Kind Of Negligence Do To Our Students?'

Posted: Updated:

Leila Chakravarty, a seventh-grade math teacher in the Los Angeles public school system, measures the cost of austerity cuts to education not in gym size, class size or even pink slips, but in kids.

"There are plenty of days when I know someone needs help, and I simply cannot get the time to talk to him or her one-on-one before the bell rings," said Chakravarty, who noted that she has taught as many as 37 children in a class. "What does this kind of negligence do to our students? You know you're failing them. You know you could do more."

Unlike a scaled-back police or fire department, the harm caused by tighter school budgets isn't immediately apparent. As HuffPost's Joy Resmovits wrote, there are no bodies in the streets, no charred buildings, just a gradual dulling of the mind. Cutbacks in earlier grades are especially damaging, Resmovits pointed out, because that's when students learn the fundamentals -- how to read, write, add and subtract -- that undergird the rest of their education.

The Huffington Post, as part of a series on the global impact of austerity, asked readers to tell us how government budget cuts have affected them. Of all the areas we looked at -- affordable housing in San Francisco, food inspectors in Canada, social welfare in the United Kingdom -- it was cuts to the classroom that elicited the greatest response.

Many of those who wrote in are teachers struggling to make do with diminished resources. Others are parents who have watched their kids' interest in school shrink as class sizes grew. Pam Moore of Shelby County, Ala., said that after her daughter's class expanded by more than 30 percent in a year, the 10-year-old began receiving D's and F's.

"Her teacher spent most of the day trying to rein in 30 fourth-graders," Moore explained. "I ended up having her bring all her work home every night from school that day. We would redo it all at night."

Chip Case, a math teacher in Chula Vista, Calif., said every year his district faces budget cuts and pink slips, but this spring, even the "teacher of the year" was axed. "Meanwhile my geometry classes creep toward the infinite," he wrote. "Logic, constructions, and trigonometry don't get any easier with 35 to 42 kids in my class."

Case said he puts in long hours after school and sometimes even on Saturdays. "This leave less time for my AP calculus students, and worse, my wife and two young kids (4 years and 6 months old, respectively). My 4-year-old asks me when I leave, 'Are you going to teach the kids?' 'I'm going to try my best,' I tell her."

Budgets are falling in many places. The Salem-Keizer School District in Salem, Ore., cut 48 teacher librarians in 2011, according to Daletta Gonzales, a former teacher librarian from the area. Angela Burford, a mother of three in Alberta, Canada, said that since her son began kindergarten in Airdrie, the schools have become woefully overcrowded. Libraries have been eliminated and gymnasiums cut in half. Teachers have lost their resource room and the school no longer has a dedicated music room. "Entire classes are being taught in hallways," Burford said.

Thirty-four U.S. states have slashed their K-12 education budgets since 2008, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and making sure class sizes don't explode nationwide would cost an additional $10 billion annually, according to a March report from the Southern Regional Educational Board.

But what was perhaps most surprising was how many of the parents writing in response to an austerity series were decidedly well-off, with one mother explaining her decision to spend $80,000 a year to send her kids to private school. "We are an upper middle class family, making around the $250,000 benchmark that our wonderful government has set as 'wealthy,'" she wrote. "I can tell you that if Obama does let the tax credit expire, we will be taxed right out of being middle class, and then, I guess my children will enter into the public school system."

Another mother wrote that her children's private school has art, music, sports, theater, small language classes, trips, teachers who have the time to help individual students, clean bathrooms, healthy lunches, school spirit and 100 percent college acceptance, but complained that she is "paying a fortune!"

It's a clear comment about the benefits of private school -- and a reminder of what we might like for all students.

Here's a selection of responses that embody the problems of austerity in education.

Two years ago I was let go at a rural Utah high school because of budget cuts. I taught U.S. history and government. I had several classes with 35 to 38 students. After my position was cut, my classes were redistributed between two other teachers. I do not know what class sizes were the next year, but obviously, they went up. I am currently substituting in suburban Salt Lake County and I have substituted in English classes with nearly 50 students. This has been going on in Utah since the 1980s, when I was in elementary school. Even back then there were 30 students in the elementary schools. My dad was a high school science teacher then, and he always had around 40 or more students in at least some of his classes. Utah has the lowest per pupil spending in the country, and it has been this way for at least 30 years. So I understand how teachers in New York feel, but I have no sympathy ... I want to go back to full-time teaching, but there have been no jobs for history teaching. -- Chad Smith

I teach seventh-grade world history in Central Point, Oregon. Last year my class sizes were 34, 36, 37, 41, and 41. -- Leaf Jensen

I teach fourth grade in Ohio. Last year I had 22 students, this year I will have 30. I expect 30 to be the new norm, as other schools in our district are also seeing larger classes. Along with this, 50% of my evaluation is now based on students' achievement test scores, and all fourth-grade teachers will be ranked against each other, based on those scores. (We have learned that it is counterproductive to rank students, but find it useful to pit teachers against each other?) -- Kathryn Corson

I am a fifth-grade teacher at P.S. 3, which is located in Brooklyn, N.Y. I have been teaching for 34 years, much of it in District 13.

Last year, I began the year with 34 students. Although that number eventually decreased to 30, it was a very difficult year. I found my "small" group instruction wasn't that small, and I often felt guilty I couldn't always get to every student the way I wanted. I had students coming up in the mornings before our official start time of 8:15 a.m. to assist them with whatever they couldn't grasp during regular lessons. I had students with me during my lunch and during my prep periods trying to provide that extra help.

It was draining because I felt I never had enough time to do anything administratively, meaning I had hours and hours of paperwork to complete when I got home at 5, on the weekends and holidays. I know many people look at teachers and scoff at our "hours," but in reality, most of us work 24/7.

Our school budget has been slashed by hundreds of thousands of dollars, and we recently had to let four very good teachers go. Charter schools, on the other hand, do not adhere to the same basic rules as neighborhood schools, nor do they have to worry about budgets being cut, because it seems they have an endless flow of cash on hand.

I am proud to say all of my current students met the [New York state] criteria for both the [English language arts] and math exams. We all worked hard and succeeded. But at what cost? Small class size, particularly in the lower grades, is essential for student success. Children have so much extra baggage nowadays, and many live in shelters. Not only do they need smaller classes for academic success, but they also need small classes to help build their confidence, to let them know that people do care and to make sure they learn how to survive in life so the patterns of substance and alcohol abuse, physical abuse and neglect will be broken. We need to show our children that college is possible. Smaller class sizes give teachers the power to help even the most fragile student attain confidence, success and goals.

Here in NYC, it's obvious that the mayor is not concerned with the education of our children, but rather to bust the union. But that is another discussion! -- Lynda Costagliola

Our school district in California has been cut year after year. If the ballot measure does not pass in November to raise the sales tax, then our district will cut an additional 15 days off the school year (we have already cut eight days). This means our kids will get out on May 22 next year! I don't understand why education is not a priority for our country anymore when we are fighting overseas to provide these types of opportunities to others! -- Nicole Botti

My grandson, who just completed second grade, had 29 in his class with an aide to help his teacher only approximately one hour a day! Too many! And we are in a small Iowa school. Iowa ... where we like to think that our schools are tops! We are dreaming as we pack more and more into a classroom. And Romney would do away with the Dept. of Education? Go figure! -- Carol Mefford

Our high school averaged five classes per teacher per day and between 25 and 30 students per class. This year, core teachers have six classes and 180 students per day. I'm sure there are many schools in the nation where the ratios are even worse. 180 school days per year, 360 lesson plans, 360 students per year with semester classes. I challenge any corporate CEO to teach, grade, and evaluate this many individuals on a weekly basis. Consider how long it takes to grade 180 papers even if you can run them through a scantron and enter them into a grade book. If you teach composition or literature, students turn in an average of one piece per week. At 18 weeks per semester, one piece per student, that's 3,240 pieces of work to evaluate per semester. This is on top of recording grades, corresponding with parents, developing [Individualized Education Programs], dealing with late or missing assignments or homebound students. No wonder most of us deep down find it hard to live up to our own expectations, to revise lessons, reinforce areas where students are weak, and spend time individually with students. With classes of 30 students in periods of 50 minutes, teachers who spend just one minute with each individual student have then 20 minutes to teach the lesson. -- Jill Schabels

For an upcoming series, The Huffington Post is investigating the effects of North Carolina's right-to-work law. Do you work in that state or know someone who does? Email offthebus@huffingtonpost.com to describe the conditions of your job, whether you think it should be unionized and why. Include a phone number if you're willing to be interviewed. We're especially interested in talking to people in the hospitality sector: housekeepers, dishwashers, etc.

Around the Web

Larger Class Sizes, Education Cuts Harm Children's Chance To Learn