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Sending Kids the Bill for the Mess Left By Wall Street

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Wall Street's excesses blew up the economy. Now the question is who pays to clean up the mess. Across the country, our children are already paying part of the bill -- as their schools are hit with deep budget cuts. A new report -- Starving America's Public Schools: How Budget Cuts and Policy Mandates are Hurting our Nation's Students -- released today by the Campaign for America's Future and the National Education Association, looks at five states to detail what this means to kids in our public elementary and secondary schools. (Full disclosure: I co-direct the Campaign.) The findings are sobering.

Every study shows the importance of early childhood education. Analysts at the Federal Reserve discovered that investments in childhood development have, in the words of Fed Chair Ben Bernanke, such "high public as well as private returns" that the Fed has championed such investments to noting they save states money by reducing costs of drop outs, special education, and crime prevention. Yet across the country, states are slashing funding for per-kindergarten and even rolling back all day kindergarten. Now pre-K programs serve only about one-fourth of 4-year-olds. Ten states have eliminated funding for pre-K altogether, including Arizona. Ohio eliminated funding for all day kindergarten.

Every parent and teacher knows the importance of smaller classes, particularly in the early years when individual attention is vital. Yet across the country, schools have cut some 270,000 jobs since 2007 and are facing layoffs of nearly 250,000 public school workers next year, many of them teachers. In Chester Upland, PA, 40% of the teachers were eliminated, with class sizes rising from 21 to 30 in elementary schools and to 35 in high schools, causing students to walk out.

Intelligence comes in many forms. Successful schools offer a well-rounded curriculum -- not just the basics, but art and music, social studies, extra-curricular activities, physical education. But now schools across the country are forced to terminate or charge extra for anything beyond the core curriculum. In York, Pa., art, music and physical education was eliminated in elementary schools. In Medina, Ohio, students returned to find courses in French, German, art, music and Advanced Placement Science and Math were eliminated.

And children, needless to say, are extremely diverse. They learn in different ways, at different rates, and face different challenges. Public schools educate the poor and the affluent, those with developmental challenges and those who are gifted. Yet across the country, schools are slashing funds for special learning instruction, for advanced placement courses. Increasingly parents face extra fees for programs. In Medina, Ohio for example, it costs $660 to play a high school sport, $200 to join the school choir, $50 to act in a student play.

Even as budgets are slashed for public schools, more and more state education money is getting siphoned off to private contractors to pay for elaborate tests, and to vouchers and corporate tax credits to subsidize private and charter schools. We're cutting billions out of educating kids while increasing spending on testing how they are doing.

The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities reports that school budgets have been cut in some 34 states and the District of Columbia. In Arizona, the cuts average about $530 per pupil. In Florida, $1 billion was cut in next year's budget, or about $542 per student. Not surprisingly, these cuts fall hardest on the poorest districts that can't afford to make up for them the way more affluent districts can. The kids who have the greatest need for public education are suffering the deepest cuts.

Americans sensibly value education. Every political candidate promises our children will have the best education in the world. Yet Washington seems largely oblivious to the carnage taking place in our schools. Part of the president's American Jobs Act was special funding to avoid more teacher layoffs. A filibuster by Republican Senators kept that from even coming up for debate, much less a vote.

Meanwhile a furious argument continues about what standard teachers and schools should be held accountable to. The administration, still touting its Race to the Top program, wants the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind to set the standard that all children should be "college ready" by the year 2020. Senator Harkin introduced a more sensible standard of requiring "continuous improvement" from all schools.

But schools are eliminating kindergarten, laying off teachers, cramming 35 kids in a class, cutting advanced placement classes, and levying steep fees for kids to be in the band or play on an athletic team. Continuous improvement? Race to the Top? The grim reality facing our kids mocks the rhetoric.

Jeff Bryant, author of the Starving America's Public Schools report, notes that there have been only two previous times since 1929 when this nation cut spending significantly on its children's education -- once in the midst of the Great Depression and once in the midst of World War II. With schools facing budget cutbacks while the largest generation of kids since the boomers flood the classrooms, this is likely to be the third. The bankers who caused the mess got bailed out. The military budget exceeds Cold War levels. The richest 1% of Americans, who make as much as the bottom 60% of Americans, pay the lowest tax rates since the Great Depression. But our kids and their schools are getting the bill for an economic mess they didn't create. No wonder Occupy Wall Street is spreading across the country.