Budget cuts and real consequences: Robert’s story

Budget cuts and real consequences: Robert’s story

The budget proposed by the North Carolina House of Representatives would cut nearly 10% from the Department of Public Instruction, resulting in the loss of several thousand teachers and all teacher assistants outside of kindergarten and first grade. There would also be major reductions to funds used for disadvantaged and at-risk students, academic supports, textbooks, and transportation. These cuts would harm every school-age child in the state, and most dramatically, low-income and minority students. If instituted, the House budget proposal would reduce the quality of public education in North Carolina.

What will public education look like if the House’s budget proposal is adopted?

Let’s follow a student we’ll call Robert—a fifth-grade student from a low-income, single-parent household in Wake County—on the first day of the 2011-12 school year. Although an excellent math student, Robert is a struggling reader who needs extra support in order to pass language arts. He is a well-behaved student who tested negative for learning disabilities. Robert’s math grades have evoked aspirations of being an engineer.

However, he knows that his literacy skills must improve in order to one day accomplish his goal.

The teaching and administrative staff at Robert’s elementary school has always worked tirelessly to prevent Robert and students like him from falling through the cracks. But how might the new budget affect the classroom? Let’s see…

Robert’s first day of school: August 2011

Robert woke up around 5 o’clock in the morning. This may sound excessively early, but school officials don’t have money for new buses, so they must use the same number of buses as last year to transport a significantly larger student body. Thus, instead of a 30-minute commute, Robert must endure an hour and a half on an overcrowded school bus twice a day.

Robert arrives excited to catch up with friends, but school seems a little more chaotic than usual, and he has a hard time getting situated. His class appears to be more crowded than last year. Robert remembers how difficult it was at times to keep up in fourth grade, and he feels lost in the larger class. He is worried and a little scared. By the looks of it, so is his teacher.

Robert scans the room for the teacher’s assistant, but there isn’t one. In fourth grade, he could always count on teacher assistants to work with him on reading and writing and the one-on-one instruction helped him keep up. It appears Robert will be on his own this year.

Well, that’s not completely true—he will have 26 peers fighting just as hard for the teacher’s attention. This must be what the legislature meant when they talked about introducing “competition” into the public school system.

The teacher hands out the textbooks. Robert, who is a bit of a neat freak, is disappointed to see doodles and words drawn throughout the pages. It looks like fifth grade language arts will involve a little more French than usual.

Before the teacher dismisses Robert to his 90 minute expedition home, she mentions she will be absent tomorrow due to an important appointment. She is not sure whether they will have a substitute teacher or be combined with another class. As much as Robert dislikes substitute teachers, he would much rather complete a boring handout than wade through a sea of forty-plus students all day.

By the end of the first week of school, Robert and his mother have several academic concerns. Together, they ask a guidance counselor about the after-school tutoring program that helped improve Robert’s literacy skills last year. Luckily, the program will still be offered.

However, due to an inability to pay teachers and hire tutors, it will be offered first to students with disabilities; secondly to students who were held back last year; and finally, to “average” pupils like Robert.

Robert knows that if he can’t pass English this year, he will be left behind while his friends proceed to middle school. He’s certain engineers don’t get held back, and he’s sure the schools they attend are far better than his.

Make our children the first priority

Robert’s story is not meant to make anyone feel sorry for struggling students, overworked teachers, or frazzled administrators. It is simply to demonstrate that every budget cut has real, tangible consequences, and that we must prioritize accordingly. The North Carolina House budget proposal has priorities, but sadly, the education of North Carolina’s children does not ranked highly among them.

Tyler Whittenberg is an Education and Law Policy Fellow at the North Carolina Justice Center.