The deliberate financial starvation of urban school districts across the country is a threat to the civil rights of some of our most vulnerable citizens and a potentially devastating blow to the economic future of the United States.
Over the past two years, we've seen Chicago Public Schools close 54 schools and school districts in cities like Philadelphia and Detroit engage in massive school closures due to deep funding shortages. The funding crisis in the city of Philadelphia at the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year was particularly concerning. Steep budget cuts resulting from the reversal of Pennsylvania's former Governor Ed Rendell's education funding formula by current Governor Tom Corbett, caused a $304 million dollar budget shortfall for the School District of Philadelphia.
As a result, 23 schools were closed and nearly 4,000 district employees including guidance counselors, teachers, assistant principals and other school-based staff were laid off. The city was forced to borrow 50 million dollars just to open the schools on a bare minimum basis. Art, music, extracurricular activities and librarians were eliminated. The majority of the schools still have no guidance counselors and many lost their full time nurses. The financial starvation of the district is punishing children who had nothing to do with creating the problem.
The situation in Philadelphia was a microcosm of a larger trend to dismantle and defund education in the United States. President Obama's proposal for the funding of universal Pre-K, has not gained the needed legislative traction and sequester cuts have now kicked nearly 57,000 children out of the Head Start program. Those children in Head Start were not deemed as valuable as the members of Congress who acted with lightning speed to stop the cuts to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) that were delaying their air travel. The students in school districts like Philadelphia and Chicago were not considered as valuable as the Wall Street firms that received hefty financial bailouts.
School districts should not have to go to drastic measures just to meet bare minimum needs. The focus should be on closing the achievement gap, graduating college- and career-ready students and attacking the nation's dropout epidemic. These are economic necessities. The unemployment rate among individuals without a high school diploma is double the rate of those with a diploma and each dropout represents a $260,000 burden in lost earnings, taxes, and productivity according to the Alliance for Excellent Education. Additionally, the majority of the new jobs that will be created over the next decade will require some type of post secondary education.
Ninety percent of students in America attend public schools so the current public education disinvestment strategies are not a viable option if the United States seeks to have an adequate and equitable system of education. Education is often seen as the primary vehicle for upward mobility and will become even more essential as the United State competes in a global economy. Significant financial investments must be made in order to sustain the educational system at a high level and to fight the chronic unemployment and under-employment that persists in urban America. Long term developments in the economy such as technological advances that reduce labor, economic globalization, a decline in unionization and the varying skills in the labor force have drastically affected the economic status of low-skilled workers independent of the economic cycle.
Both a policy response from government entities and a community response from grassroots organizations, religious institutions, and a diverse coalition of stakeholders will be required to combat these significant challenges. Government policy should reflect a view that people struggling to escape poverty encounter both structural and deficient-demand problems as well as opportunity gaps that lead to employability gaps. This outlook and focus would result in the bolstering of education and training policies coupled with large public employment initiatives.
National Action Network (NAN) chapters across the country have been at the forefront of leading a community response to these and other pressing issues. In April 2013, the South Florida Chapter of the National Action Network led by Bishop Victor T. Curry along with Miami-Dade County Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho assembled area teachers, parents, union leaders, activists and various community organizations in the Miami area to develop a strategic plan to youth violence in the area. The following month, the chapter partnered with Education for a Better America (EBA), Miami-Dade County Schools, and Florida International University (FIU) for a Higher Education Awareness, Dropout Prevention and Health Initiative where students from 21 different high schools were bused onto the FIU campus for workshops on the entire college admissions and financial aid process, financial literacy, health and wellness, a campus tour and career spotlight speakers.
EBA has partnered with NAN on a series of nationwide initiatives to increase the pursuit of post-secondary education, increase civic engagement, prevent school dropouts, increase the pursuit of S.T.E.A.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) careers among urban youth and promote health and wellness across the country. It will take the maximization of initiatives like these that bolster the connection between churches, schools systems, institutions of higher learning and community organizations to eventually close America's opportunity gap and enable equity to flourish. The African proverb says that it takes "a village to raise a child." It is going to take everyone in the village taking ownership over all of our children, pooling our collective resources, together and guiding them in a perpetual forward direction in order for positive change to take place and for the movement to progress in a substantive manner.
Marcus Bright, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Education for a Better America and an Adjunct Professor in the School of Public Administration at Florida International University and Florida Atlantic University.