READING, Pa. -- The day before school starts, 8-year-old Tianna wakes up worried. She's worried about the cafeteria food that she receives for free, because usually "it's nasty." She's worried about making friends, since she'll be in a new school. But most of all, she's worried about where all the fired teachers will go.
"When we were at assembly, I learned that people didn't have enough money to let all the teachers come back next year, so they were kicking teachers out," explains Tianna, in a quiet, earnest voice as she bounces up and down on her chair. "There was this one teacher that I really liked, and she's getting kicked out."
Tianna's mother, Tashima, tries to ease her fears, but it doesn't help much. "Tianna's like an old lady -- she's really nosy," Tashima says, laughing. "She just gets upset."
Tianna does seem world-weary for a third-grader, maybe in part because she lives in Reading, Pa., until September the country's poorest city, according to U.S. Census figures. And her school is feeling the city's poverty.
When government budgets are tight, education is often the first thing to be shaved down. It can feel like a relatively painless fix, because the full effects of cutting education funds only crystallize years later. But such cuts scrape away at that most iconic expression of American democracy and opportunity -- the public schools.
Because of an outdated tax-based funding model, scholars say, it's the poorest regions that feel these cuts the hardest, making it even more difficult for America's poor to attain a better quality of life. Some advocates say it would be fairer to fund schools entirely out of state or federal coffers, insulating the finances of a public school from the relative poverty or prosperity of its locale. States have begun to move that way, but not sufficiently, they say.
Reading isn't alone in its troubles. As the U.S. economy hobbles along, schools across the country are still hurting. Twenty-six states will spend less per student in 2013 than the year before, according to a recent analysis from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Arizona, Alabama and Oklahoma all have cut school spending by about 20 percent since 2008 -- the largest state decreases in the country.
A total of 35 states spend less today on education than they did before the recession began in late 2008. This reduction comes despite the $98 billion in federal stimulus money allotted for education starting in 2009. States relied on this one-time cash injection to close one quarter of their budget gaps and to save 420,000 education jobs between 2009 and the 2010-11 school year.
But those federal dollars dried up at the end of last year, and employment numbers among teachers now work out to a net loss. Since June 2009, a recent White House report noted, more than 300,000 teachers have lost their jobs. In August 2012 alone, schools cut 7,000 educators from their payrolls. The result: an increase in the student-to-teacher ratio for the first time in a decade.
"U.S. schooling may be on a historic glide toward lower per-pupil resources and significant labor-force reductions," James Guthrie and Elizabeth Ettema, researchers at the conservative George W. Bush Institute, recently wrote in an article for the Harvard journal Education Next. "A new normal of public-sector fiscal austerity is emerging."
The Reading School District looks nothing like it did just a year ago. A $43 million deficit this year has resulted in 13 percent fewer teachers on its payroll, and a scramble to fill those gaps. Many furloughed rehires are teaching in unfamiliar fields. For example, Brad Richards, a longtime sixth-grade history veteran, presides over a kindergarten class. The capacity of pre-kindergarten has been cut in half. Because Pennsylvania schools by rule can't fire teachers unless a school is closed or a program is shut down, certain vocational and technology classes simply don't exist anymore. Fewer security guards monitor student brawls and school safety inside the halls, and those who remain operate without the help of police officers, whom the district deemed too expensive to hire from the city.
More students jostle for less space. The intermediate schools and the high school are flooded with extra kids, the refugees of three defunct middle-school "gateways" opened a few years ago.
Similar woes are hitting low-income school districts elsewhere.
Cities in New York, Illinois and Pennsylvania generally feel the worst financial squeeze, according to the Education Law Center's school funding fairness report, because their local funding sources favor wealthier school districts over needier areas -- and because they sometimes spend more money than necessary in affluent suburbs. Taxpayers in poorer areas can only afford smaller school budgets for themselves before state aid kicks in. This is a problem, says the report's co-author Bruce Baker, a Rutgers University education professor, because districts with needier students have to pay a premium to recruit and keep good teachers. They also need additional funds to provide services that help close the gap between disadvantaged students and their better-off peers.
Reading is emblematic of poor cities nationwide, bruised not only by blows to education but also by a dearth of consistent leadership. According to numerous audits, the Reading school system has long been plagued with dysfunction, nepotism and administrative churn. As education reform leaders and unions fight over policies that mandate rigorous teacher evaluations and encourage the growth of charter schools, poor kids are losing out in the most basic of ways -- a situation that embeds them deeper in the cycle of poverty.
Because school funding depends on the property tax base, Reading can spend only $7,572 each year per student, versus $10,633 per student in West Reading, a tonier town only minutes away over the Penn Street Bridge. Reading, a city of 88,000, has a poverty rate of 40.1 percent -- the sixth largest share of residents living in poverty among American cities with populations over 65,000. (Reading was the nation's poorest city in 2010, but new Census figures put Camden, N.J., atop the list for 2011.) Only 10 percent of Reading residents have a bachelor's degree, and only 64 percent have a high school diploma. As the factory jobs dried up -- a trend that started in the 1970s when the storied Reading Railroad filed for bankruptcy and worsened sharply between 2008 and 2009 -- thousands of parents lost their livelihood, leaving them with few alternatives for work. Their children are now dropping out to support them and are unlikely to attend college.
"Everyone is being laid off, and most of them don't have more than a high school diploma, so it's not like they have anything to fall back on," says Myriam Joseph, who recently graduated from Reading High School. "If more people had a diploma or more, unemployment wouldn't be so bad here."
The school system's leadership also faces serious upheaval. The Reading School District has cycled through four superintendents in the past three years. The school board fired all of its central managers this spring, ostensibly to save money, leaving the district with only one administrator (the human resources chief) for several months, as the district grappled with implementing budget cuts. After a nationwide search last year failed to produce a permanent superintendent, the school board finally brought in Carlinda Purcell, who recently led Alabama's Montgomery County schools. She began this summer.
Purcell has told teachers that the lack of money and the students' poverty should not affect their ability to teach effectively. "Administrators want to be able to say, 'Give me a rubber band and a paper clip, and I can do it [run a school],'" Baker, the Rutgers professor, said. "But you have to be able to recognize how much more resources can help."
Vaughn Spencer, a longtime teacher who recently took over as the city's mayor, knows that something is wrong. "At face value, it looks like somebody dropped the ball," he told The Huffington Post. "But I can't say whose fault it is."