The signs of fall are unmistakable: temperatures drop, colors change and Provo’s population explodes.
Parents begin the daily grind of getting their kids ready to start the day. Children ages five to 18 show up to school with new backpacks, shiny pencils and more advertising on their clothes than found in most blockbuster movies.
Parents have often budgeted for the new supplies and styles required for the new school year, and state governments across the country have done the same. Sadly, the majority of these budgets are shrinking year to year, not expanding, and educators are left to cope as best they can.
Most experts will tell you the current recession began in late 2007. Though states started cutting spending then, some states are still cutting their educational budgets almost five years later.
Of the 46 states researched by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 37 provided less funding than the previous year, 30 provided less than they did four years ago, and four states have cut per student funding by more than 20 percent.
The state of Utah has not been exempt from these cuts. After its largest budget in 2009, the state cut almost $50 million from the public education budget over the next five years.
With these budget cuts have come tough decisions for school districts. For example, early in the recession Provo City School District considered cuts to a music program, the days of school or even employee wages.
Sabrina Perez, a 2012 BYU graduate from New Mexico with a degree in elementary education, sees this as a major problem.
“If the government does not choose to invest more at the national and state levels, then our future and the future of America’s children looks pretty bleak,” Perez said.
Governor Gary Herbert has heeded the warnings of Perez and others like her. For its 2013 budget, the governor has allocated almost $100 million more to the public education budget.
Although that is a substantial increase, it still only represents a budget increase of about three percent. Because student enrollment statewide has increased at a rate of about 12,000 students (about two percent) a year for the past decade, it’s easy to see this budget increase will be eaten up fast.
This idea is expressed in other data. In the list of what states spend on education per student, Utah ranks dead last, spending almost $3,000 less per student than the national average.
Danged if you do, danged if you don’t
Cuts to public education mean larger class sizes, less resources and resource teachers, like special education, physical education, music and art teachers.
“Subjects that fail to show their relevance in the international economy are the ones that suffer,” said Michael Huefner, a senior from Elkhorn, Neb., studying history education.
Cuts to the arts could have some major consequences for students. As part of an article in The Boston Globe, journalists Ellen Winner and Lois Hetland spent a year studying five arts classes in Boston. They found that these classes taught skills not found in other classes.
“Such skills include visual-spatial abilities, reflection, self-criticism and the willingness to experiment and learn from mistakes,” Winner and Hetland wrote. “All are important to numerous careers, but are widely ignored by today’s standardized tests.”
But if the cuts don’t get made in education, where else could they be made? Health? Transportation? Public safety? These areas have been cut as well, and further cuts could have their own potentially society changing consequences.
Making the best of a difficult situation
Put in a tough position, educators across the country are trying to lessen the impact of the budget cuts faced by schools in their states.
Huefner, working with current teachers, has seen a lot of personal sacrifice.
“Some teachers have told me that they simply had to pay hundreds of dollars of their own money to buy certain books and supplies that they wanted to use in class,” Huefner said.
Wes Smith graduated from BYU in 1995 with a degree in English. Now he is the superintendent of the Morgan Hill Unified School District in Morgan Hill, Calif. Over the last five years, the district has had to make more than $10 million in budget reductions, which included cuts to summer school programs and art and elective courses at the district’s high schools.
In order to lessen the impact of their cuts, Smith has reduced his contractual pay raises.
“I thought it was the responsible thing to do as far as protecting the district in times that really, really are uncertain at best,” Smith said in a statement to the Morgan Hill Times.
Board President Ron Woolf is grateful for the example set by Smith.
“More than any other superintendent, he is so visible,” Woolf told the Morgan Hill Times. “He gets the community involved. You get the feeling that if the superintendent is involved, I can be involved. He’s moving on things. He doesn’t sit still.”
In Utah, educators want to see the community get involved too.
The Utah Education Association website states, “While many factors contribute to a child’s success in school, research shows parental involvement is one of the most significant.”
In this respect, Utah may be doing just fine.
“There are many communities in Utah where parents still care about their own children’s education and are willing to help them learn at whatever cost,” Perez said. “As a teacher, it is so rewarding to see a parent become involved in their child’s education. They are the true teachers.”