Real Cost of Teacher Layoffs is Our Future

Real Cost of Teacher Layoffs is Our Future

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By now, the pattern is impossible to ignore: More than 30,000 teachers in California received layoff warnings last spring; another 300 prepared for unemployment in Milwaukee; in Chicago, 1,000 more were looking for work, and by the time school started in September some 60,000 teachers across the country had lost their jobs.

Certain ramifications are obvious: Fewer teachers equals larger classes and less attention devoted to each student, even as the demand for improved outcomes mounts.

“No child left behind?” sighed Anselmo Feliciano, whose class list increased by more than 50 percent this year. “Kids are being literally left behind because there are so many of them. When we walk down the halls the lines are so, so long.”

Feliciano teaches at Lafayette Elementary School in Long Beach, Calif., where 100 percent of the students – almost all of them Latino or African-American – are considered “socioeconomically disadvantaged” and, therefore, eligible for free or reduced price lunches. Yet the school lost a third of its teaching staff this year.

Although data on the effect of increased class sizes remains inconclusive, research on what it takes to teach disadvantaged children is not: “What we know about educating poor kids is that it takes more money than it does for affluent children,” said Anne Foster, a longtime school board member in Texas and now executive director at the education advocacy group Parents for Public Schools.

Poor families move more frequently, and their children often come to school hungry. Foster noted that kids living in poverty start school with about half as many words in their vocabulary as their middle-class counterparts. “It takes time – and money – to overcome the deficits,” she said, noting that early language skills affect reading, intellectual development and future academic success. “So that’s really one of the worst effects here – on poor children.”

Some of the less apparent results of school layoffs could be at least as damaging. Thousands of jobless teachers – and their kids — no longer have health insurance. Many are in their 30s and 40s, traditionally the prime years for earning money toward retirement. But not now.

A Chicago study found that of teachers who lost jobs there this year, a plurality were African-American and working in low-income schools. In Long Beach, Calif., where some 400 teachers are out of work, educators with master’s degrees are losing their homes. They worry about driving to the grocery store because of the gas required. Meanwhile in Texas, the state legislature recently slashed $4 billion from education funding.

“Back when I started, teaching was considered an important job,” said Jane Gordon-Topper, 56, who teaches kindergarten in California. “I’m not sure that it’s seen that way today.”

Across the country, as each state grapples with its own dire budget scenario, education funding has been among the first areas cut, just as taxpayers are demanding improved test scores and graduation rates. That disconnect – less money for better performance – is leading veteran educators to question whether voters still consider public schools essential to American democracy.

“In my 20 years in education, I have never seen the devaluation of education as I have recently,” said Lloyd Verstuyft, superintendent of Texas’s Southwest Independent School District.

Even those who have left the classroom to climb the political ladder confess to unprecedented concern about policies now governing American schools. Michael Moses, who served as Texas Commissioner of Education from 1995 to 1999 under then Gov. George W. Bush, decried his state’s current agenda on school funding and predicted dire costs to come.

“The schools, I’m afraid, have become a punching bag,” said Moses, who describes himself as a “Republicrat.”

“You can’t cut $4 billion from public education and not feel it. Schools are not only places of teaching and learning, they are a place of support. That is being chipped away now, and it will have consequences.”

Moses, who has spent three decades moving up the ranks, from teacher to administrator to national education policy expert, said the data are clear: Those with less education are more likely to cost society through higher rates of crime, teen pregnancy and emergency room use.

Recently, Moses visited a wealthy suburban district near Austin and was barraged by students complaining about cuts to their library, counseling and nursing staffs.

“When your most affluent districts are talking about how difficult it is for them, you can only imagine what’s going on in poor districts,” he said. “I’ve been asked if this is a racially based agenda. Maybe not consciously, but it’s true that when you look at the people voting on state budgets, they obviously don’t look like a majority of our children. They look like the over-55 taxpayer.”

While kids struggle in packed classrooms, laid-off teachers like Blanca Pacheco, 42, search the job boards daily, joining hundreds of other educators applying for two or three open slots. “Your life is at a standstill,” she said. “You don’t know how you’re going to live.”

Six years ago, when she started teaching in Long Beach, Calif., Pacheco was thrilled at the $43,000 starting salary. It was hardly a princely sum but enough that the bilingual educator, who holds two degrees, could buy a small condo. Now on unemployment, she has been unable to keep up with the payments. “I never thought this would happen in education. I thought I was going to retire as a teacher.”

For her and others who taught at Lafayette Elementary, the layoffs are particularly painful because in the past three years they have improved student test scores dramatically. So much so, that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger singled out Lafayette as a beacon in California’s system.

Last year, he stood before a wall of Lafayette student collages and signed an application for $20 million in federal education funds. “We want to see this all over the state of California,” Schwarzenegger said of the teachers’ quality work.

Fifteen months later, the memory of that ceremony rankles.

“You’d hear the rumors but think ‘Nah, look at all our achievements. Look at what we’ve done,’” said Rebecca Garland, a mother of three who also taught at Lafayette before losing her job last July. “You keep thinking you’re going to get a call saying, ‘Come back to work.’ But there’s no such call.”

At the local YMCA, training director Carola Secada has seen dozens of resumes from out-of-work Long Beach teachers. But she can do little to help. “These interviews are heartbreaking,” she said. “A majority of our applicants are credentialed educators with their bachelor’s degrees – applying for $10-per-hour jobs. For every opening, we get at least 40 applicants. It’s unbelievable.”

The full import of all this – to children, their families and to the teachers themselves – may not be apparent for a decade. Moses, hardly a tax-and-spend liberal, predicts a host of social ills stemming from the current cutbacks. Meanwhile, Foster, of Parents for Public Schools, has launched an online petition where anyone can speak up about the current budget-cutting . She is urging parents to demand the restoration of education funds.

“The public has to make clear that they expect schools to be funded,” she said. “If we ever expect to get into a better economic climate, education is not what we can cut and get there. Education needs to be looked at for what it is – the driver of everything that we’re trying to do as a nation.”