I want to make a few points to address some of the valid concerns that were raised in response to my last blog post about city school districts. This post will address the issue of funding and why it is relevant to school districts.
As many claimed, the opposition to city school districts is “about the money.” Yes it is – in part.
Many people have argued that funding does not affect student learning outcomes, but if you give me a chance, I’d like to present a few examples that hopefully will move the conversation forward.
Less funding means lower wages for teachers (who, according to some research, have the single greatest impact on student achievement). Less funding means fewer extracurricular programs for students (which can decrease student motivation and achievement at school). Less funding means fewer resources for teaching basic curriculum.
Funding Affects Teacher Salary
Here is where I believe a few anecdotes and statistics will be helpful. Before I taught at a Title I school, I did not realize the impact that funding had on student achievement. In my experiences in Title I schools, teacher morale is a fragile thing. Salary — in addition to considerations such as student motivation, school system management, and the ability to access academic resources — is a motivating factor when choosing a school system in which to teach.
[I won’t go into the case for higher pay for teachers, but I will say this: my first year of teaching at 22 years old, my after-tax pay was $2400. My student loan payment (minimum) was $800 a month. My rent was $650 a month. I bought my car outright at $3500 so I didn’t have a car payment, but my insurance was roughly $100 a month. I had less than $900 to cover any medical bills, groceries, gas, or entertainment — not to mention emergency savings or car maintenance and repairs.]
Teachers almost always prefer to teach in wealthier districts. Some teachers begin their teaching career in high-poverty school districts, but many (and I’ve spoken to many) of these teachers burn out after a few years and search for alternate school districts or alternate careers altogether.
Statistics also demonstrate this. “The U.S. Department of Education confirms that teacher turnover is highest in public schools where half or more of the students receive free or reduced-price lunches.”
Teacher turnover negatively impacts student achievement, so in this way, abandoning the county district in order to create a “better” district is essentially dooming children in those schools to teachers who a) don’t want to be there, b) will probably not be there within a couple years, and c) if they do stay, will be overworked, under-resourced, and under-paid.
You may be familiar with the term “the dance of the lemons.” Basically, this is what happens to teachers when the principal wants to fire them but cannot do so easily because of teacher unions or “without reasonable proof” (which turns out is rather hard to prove) – but that is an entirely different soapbox that I won’t be able to address in this piece.
Instead of simply releasing a teacher, the principal will “displace” the teacher. This means that when it comes time to sign new contracts for the upcoming school year, the “displaced” teachers have to be hired on by another school in the district before any teacher transfers or new hires are allowed. Because low income schools have 50% higher teacher turnover than wealthier schools, the low income schools need to hire teachers more frequently.
As a matter of course, low-income schools end up with many of the teachers that are unwanted in the rest of the district or region. (This is not the case for every teacher in low-income schools, but a disproportionate amount of low-performing teachers end up in the lowest-performing schools.)
Funding Affects More Than Teacher Salary
Funding also matters for things other than salary. Berkmar High School, where I taught for four years, I would plan entire units based on books that I thought would be the best for my students academically. Many times there was not enough funding for these books, and students came from families that, quite frankly, could not afford to buy supplemental books for every class. I would settle for a class set and settle for students having to read in class — which takes up valuable instruction time. And believe me, my students needed the instructional time.
Or, take for example, writing papers. Many students came from homes that did not have computers. The ones that did, usually only had one computer for the entire family. On top of that, many of the kids lived in small apartments that were very loud and difficult to do school work. Funding for laptops and better bandwidth at the high school campus would have greatly benefited these students. Yes, our school had laptops, but there were 3300 students and there were never enough computers for everyone. When such a significant portion of one’s energy is spent trying to fight over computer lab time, there isn’t as much energy left over to, say, teach, as there would’ve been had laptops been easier to come by or not taken fifteen minutes of class time simply booting up.
Another example: in Gwinnett County most schools were only six periods long during the day. Teachers had five classes they taught, and one planning period, and probably 150 students. At Berkmar High School, a school that was 86% free-and-reduced lunch (the measure of poverty for schools), we had seven periods in a day. Teachers had to teach an additional class of about 30 (sometimes more) students (which means more grading, more parents to contact, more students to consider when planning lessons), had to prepare an additional lesson, and were not paid any more than their counterparts who were in schools with lower numbers of students in poverty. From my conversations with teachers, higher pay would have made teachers more willing to go along with the extended day, and would have potentially enabled the school to retain teachers who eventually were worn out. (I eventually left because I was having children — not because of my desire for a higher-paying school.)
I could go into the lack of social workers in high-poverty schools, the lack of police officers at high-poverty schools, the low-quality buildings in high-poverty schools, the overcrowding in high-poverty schools, but I think there is already enough here for one post. These issues cannot be addressed without funding.
If city districts are created, the quality of education in the remaining parts of the county will inevitably decrease (in DeKalb, in Fulton, in Gwinnett, etc.). The parents and representatives in cities that could support a school district also claim that the children in their city need a city district to be created in order for their children to have a “good education” are already zoned for some of the top schools in the state.
We need to find a solution that will benefit all students, not just a select few. And until we find a broader solution, this discussion will continue to be a recurrent one.