The reason? Lack of funding has shut students out from athletics, clubs, and after-school help. Budget cuts over the last several years have made this situation typical, exacting a heavy toll on virtually all American school children, in ways that are both expected and surprising.
The national economy may be rebounding from the 2007 – 2009 recession, but school revenue continues to take a hit. In fact, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says state budgets provide less per-pupil funding for elementary and secondary students than they did six years ago.
Stressed out, overworked, and underpaid educators, paraeducators, and educational support staff personnel know all too well the impact of insufficient funding, but how are American children faring under these conditions?
“Not well,” says Justin Kern, an elementary Special Education teacher in Prince William County—one of the highest income counties in the country. “Over the years, I’ve seen help diminish significantly, particularly [in] the number of teaching assistants and reading intervention specialists assigned to classrooms…and to make matters worse, we don’t have nearly as many parent volunteers as we did when I first started teaching 10 years ago.”
“I think parents are doing what they need to do to keep their families happy and healthy, but many have less time to spend at their child’s school. Students notice—and can pay the price—when fewer adults are available to help them academically,” explains Kern.
Changed Relationships, Responsibilities
Parental support hasn’t decreased everywhere. In Scottsdale, Ariz. Christine Porter Marsh teaches Advanced Placement (AP) and Honors English. She has had a completely different experience with the level of parental involvement after budget cuts. “I’m grateful that I can count on our school’s parent groups and the parents of students in my classroom to help fill gaps in funding. The Parent Association helps buy books and parents of my students have even bought paper so I could make copies.”
For Marsh, the chief consequence of budget cuts has been their impact on class size. Over time, she has witnessed a steady increase in class size. But a recent jump in enrollment a few years ago was remarkable, and led her to the sad realization that the increase in class sizes was causing her relationship with her students to change.
The Scottsdale native can deal with the logistics of squeezing 40 students into a space designed for 30 (even if it means purchasing camping chairs to save precious classroom space), but she laments the inability to truly know all of her students.
“It breaks my heart,” says Marsh. “It’s hard for teachers to have large classrooms, but I feel so much worse for [the] students who are stuck in crowded classrooms. … We want to be there for all our students and to give them the individual attention that will help them succeed, but it’s hard to do that when your class size is out of control.”
High School chemistry teacher Meghan Waymire—another Prince William County educator—notes an additional downside to a smaller school budget: the transfer of financial responsibility.
“Students learn best by being ‘hands on’ and working with their peers. If the funds aren’t there to buy materials, I have no choice but to purchase supplies myself,” says Waymire.
Supplies aren’t the only cost that school budgets no longer adequately cover. At Waymire’s school, transportation is no longer available to students who wish to participate in extracurricular activities. Even school field trips come with a fee. Clearly, budget cuts are hurting the educational experience, and no one is hurt more than those from economically disadvantaged households.
Fewer Outside Learning Opportunities
Elementary students who attend a Title I school on federal land in New Mexico are enriched by Native American and Hispanic culture and an educational community that embraces that diversity. But their school—like so many across the nation—falls short when it comes to funding. Robert Alexander teaches fifth grade at the Sandoval County, N.M., school. He explains: “We are fortunate to receive a significant amount of funding (about 45 percent) from the federal government, but a shortage of funds still has an impact on our students. For example, so much can be learned outside of the classroom, but we are limited to only one field trip per year.”
The lack of out-of-school learning experiences are especially impactful for these students, according to Alexander, because most of their experiences are limited to life on their pueblos. “We can plan field trips to a hands-on museum, or we can do a biome hike in Santa Fe, or go to an art museum, but, due to lack of funding, our opportunities are limited,” says Alexander.
Some of the harmful effects of inadequate school funding are obvious, but other consequences, such as stress, aren’t as easy to see.
Stress: Intangible, Yet Critical
Ron Benner, a school psychologist for the Bridgeport Public Schools in Connecticut and head of NEA’s School Psychology Caucus, says that administrators, teachers, and students alike all can feel the impact of a strained school system. Students who are already feeling pressured to perform on standardized tests are further stressed by the effects of insufficient school funding.
“Students feel the pinch in many ways,” says Benner. “Even young students can pick up the stress of their teachers. They also feel the impact of high turnover, especially when experienced teachers and support staff are replaced with those with less experience.”
Unfortunately, psychological help for students is being threatened just when they may need it most. “School districts are cutting back on school psychologists and guidance counselors. In many cases, professionals are asked to wear more than one hat—crisis work and evaluations. Everyone says education is important, but there is a definite disconnect in the way we fund our schools,” says Benner.
Bare-bones budgets empty more than school supply closets. They drain the dreams of students and teachers alike.