04/01/2011 03:26 pm ET | Updated Jun 01, 2011

It's Cyclical, Stupid

A colleague of mine who has been teaching for five years recently received a lay-off notice. He and hundreds of others, some with as much as seven years in the classroom, are now trying to figure out their futures -- and their students, once again, are feeling the hard slap from the not-so-invisible hand of free market capitalism.

It is the result of an ACLU lawsuit that sought to protect students and their teachers at some of the city's worst schools -- at which most teachers are new - from massive layoffs. The intent of the suit seems a compelling one and it is even arguable that the consequences are less detrimental than the injustice that instigated it (unless you happen to be one of the five or seven year teachers suddenly without a job or the students who've come to rely on them).

But is this painful dilemma an honest one? Is it necessary? Did the ACLU sue for the right remedy?

Two years ago, when the fiscal fallout from the economic meltdown first enshrouded state governments -- and school districts were given an idea of how drastic cuts to education would be -- I was impressed when the superintendent of the district in which I work pledged to cut teaching positions and classroom essentials last.

I don't know to what degree Ramon Cortines made good on that promise but upon further reflection I realize there is a fundamental irresponsibility and even corruption within the promise itself.

If we can cut millions of dollars in district expenses without affecting what goes on inside of our classrooms then why were we spending that money in the first place? Why, for example, were some academic classes in our district already allowed to average in excess of 35 students if there was money being spent on inessentials?

Why is that even legal?

And why aren't school districts required to defer money for such economic slowdowns as we are currently experiencing so that we might maintain some semblance of stability and, in particular, avoid the very disruptive necessity of dismissing hundreds of teachers?

We might not be able to predict the ups and downs of our economy but we don't have to be economists to understand that they are inevitable. Yet when funding levels are high states and districts act -- stupidly -- as if they will stay that way indefinitely. They even compel schools to waste money.

Every year around this time principals and their assistants throughout the country scramble to spend down every outstanding balance in their accounts -- failure to deplete these allotment is viewed as a sign of incompetent management. To be fair, mismanagement and poor leadership is often indicated by money unspent while students are not being adequately served. Most admins who find themselves on this annual spending spree probably try to purchase items that will somehow benefit students in some way at some point. But the assumption that every dollar not spent in a school year is a denial of education to students is foolish and its ultimate end is part of a manic-depressive approach to funding that ends up holding us hostage to the whims of the economy and dooms us to continual upheaval.
If we want better schools we need a more reliable, long term way of funding them. We need planning that extends beyond the terms of office of school board members and other politicians so that we can have a chance to create the stability our students need.