PracticalDad and School:  Austerity Comes Home, Part Two

Despite all of the talk of recovery and normalization, the new normal – austerity – ripples through the real economy.  As the public sector sheds jobs, this includes the educational system across the country.  While everybody can claim a share of the pie, the reality in Pennsylvania is particularly acute since state law requires that school districts fully fund their teacher pension plans and in the next several years, this contribution will rise from approximately 7% of school district budget to about 18% and if taxes aren’t going to rise proportionately, the money has to come from somewhere.  But where?  And just how good is the information that you’re hearing?

What I’ve concluded is that the kids are paying attention – at some level – but that information is either third hand or badly misconstrued.  Eldest came home several months ago with the observation that the district’s music program was on the chopping block as the school administrators were suddenly hanging around and talking to the kids and "asking questions."  She followed this up with the synopsis of another conversation that she had with a teacher, in which it was said that the wave of the future was to cross-teach so that music would be rolled into the physical education program.  I politely listened and then promptly filed it in my mental uh-huh drawer.  But the other day, I came across an article that discusses another school district discussing cuts in the music and arts in order to strengthen the core academic programs.

My home state, Pennsylvania, instituted the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment – PSSA – tests in response to Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation; the intent is to monitor how kids are performing and rating the schools accordingly.  Schools with poor performance are forced to institute remedial action plans and if they don’t work, I assume that they wind up in administrative detention.  The reality of the PSSA is that the schools have universally found themselves teaching to a test and it’s grating to a parent’s nerves to only hear from little Johnny that they spent half the day doing review work for topics that about two-thirds of the students already know and a small fraction will never know because they were whacked in the head with the stupid stick.  Like the comedian Ron White once said, you can’t fix stupid. 

The state however, is moving beyond the PSSA tests and is in the process of implementing the Keystone Tests, which commence for students in the class of 2015.  These exams will cover a variety of topic areas – Algebra 1 & 2, Geometry, Civics, Science, US and World History amongst others – and seniors will have to pass a certain number of them in order to graduate.  Those who don’t pass the requisite amounts will not graduate.  The difficulty for the districts however is that the state continues to alter the requirements and thus presents the local educators a moving target that must be hit starting in 2015; the districts are left trying to plan to meet a goal that might yet change again.  A local school district, considered to be one of the wealthier ones, is now actively considering how to cut the arts programs in order to put the money into the core academic courses mandated under the Keystone Test Program.

Our educational system’s priorities are reverting to a period predating America’s economic golden-age, which began after the end of the Second World War.  These priorities are assuring that the mass of youth are able to handle the most important aspects while leaving the non-essentials – and that’s what the coming debate is going to cover – to those who find them interesting.

What else are the local districts doing to handle the austerity crunch?

  • Three local districts, each with strong academic programs, are pooling resources to offer combined higher-level courses to their students.  The classes, such as Advanced Placement Physics, would be held at one central campus location and the students from the three districts would travel to that site for the course. 
  • One rural district is actively cutting back the athletic program and is shifting to a pay-to-play model, in which the students must pay a fee to play a particular sport.  The Athletic Director’s position has been eliminated and that work is now handled by a vice-principal and the district is trying to herd cats by getting the various sport booster clubs to merge into one sports booster club to fundraise for all sports.
  • Report cards are no longer mailed to the home, but are given to the students to give to the parents.  The reality however, is that any parent with a computer is now able to access their child’s grades via the school district website.




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