The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Hey Mitt, Leave Our Teachers Alone

Yesterday was the last day of school for public school students in Montgomery County, Maryland, where we live – including our nine-year-old son, who just completed the third grade. I began the morning by sending a one last email to his teacher. I asked her about the summer reading and math packets we were expecting our son to bring. I also thanked her for all the work she’d done to help our son this year.

As I thought about how much our son has grown and improved over the past year, and how very much the dedicated teachers and staff at his school had to do with those changes, I couldn’t help being mystified at Mitt Romney’s assertion that our children need fewer teachers. Mystified, that is, but not surprised.

After saying President Barack Obama does not care about the private sector, Mitt Romney on Friday dismissed unemployment in the public sector, saying the country does not need more firemen, policemen or teachers.

“He wants another stimulus, he wants to hire more government workers,” Romney said at a press conference. “He says we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers. Did he not get the message of Wisconsin? The American people did. It’s time for us to cut back on government and help the American people.”

I’m not surprised, because the Romney/Ryan budget would lead to fewer teachers, by making federal dollars for public schools more scarce, thus either forcing teacher’s salaries down, or forcing teachers out of the profession altogether. Even surrogates like John Sununu and Newt Gingrich have doubled down on the notion that fewer teachers would actually be good for American schools and students.

That squares pretty well with Republican efforts to obstruct any form of economic stimulus. The president’s budget proposal included $30 billion in state and local aid for retaining or rehiring teachers and first responders. The goal was to save teacher jobs across the country – just like the 7,715 teacher jobs saved in Virginia, by the emergency jobs act the president signed in late 2010.

Sounds like a no-brainer, right? But Republicans filibustered it to death, because it included a modest tax on millionaires and billionaires. That some of the 400,000 jobs that would have been saved were in their own states. Republican’s have opposed even spending even $10 billion – a third of what the president requested – to keep teachers working.

Though he doesn’t come right out and say the “v-word” on the campaign trail, Mitt Romney would rejigger the federal funding for the largest K-12 programs into a voucher-like system, that would introduce “market dynamics” into education by letting students and families use $25 billion in federal education funding to attend the public, private, charter, or online school of their choice. According to the New York Times, the money would come from programs target students most in need of support: Title 1, for economically disadvantaged students; and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Classic, isn’t it? But it doesn’t stop there. Romney’s budget is impossible to sort out. The military comes in for a bigger spending increase than it even asked for, which implies major cuts that Romney hasn’t yet bothered to specify. Can you blame him? The Romney/Ryan/Republican budget would mean over $800 billion slashed from every program that falls under “non-defense spending.”

According to OMB Acting Director Jeff Zients, education programs would suffer some of the deepest cuts.

  • the Department of Education could be cut by more than $115 billion, in ten years;
  • 9.6 million students would see their Pell Grants shrink by $1,000 in 2014, and in ten years over a million would lose support altogether;
  • about two million Head Start slots would be eliminated within ten years, and 200,000 kids would be axed from the program by 2014.

As Zients says, the Republican justification for cuts like these only adds insult to injury.

Keep in mind: cuts of this magnitude are needed in order to give the few Americans who make more than $1 million a year an average tax cut of at least $150,000.

With even bigger tax cuts than Bush, Romney’s budget requires the kind of cuts that tend not to get one elected, or get tend to get one un-elected after a single term: bone deep cuts to popular programs. (And given how much Romney wants to be president, I don’t seem him planning to be a one-termer.) Blowing up the deficit beyond the realms of anything yet seen, and finding someone to blame would seem to be the only politically viable option left. Yet the Romney campaign and its surrogates claim Romney’s budget “would eliminate the deficit” via the magic of tax cuts.

No wonder Romney wants fewer teachers. Most math teachers I’ve met would give his budget a failing grade, because (a) his math doesn’t add up and (b) he doesn’t bother to show his work.

As bad as it is, the Romney/Republican education agenda is merely a continuation of the starving of our public schools that has been underway for years.

Wall Street’s excesses blew up the economy. Now the question is who pays to clean up the mess. And across the country, our children are already paying part of the bill – as their schools are hit with deep budget cuts. A new report – Starving America’s Public Schools: How Budget Cuts and Policy Mandates are Hurting our Nation’s Students – released today by the Campaign for America’s Future and the National Education Association looks at five states to detail what this means to kids in our public elementary and secondary schools.

Every study shows the importance of early childhood education. Analysts at the Federal Reserve discovered that investments in childhood development have, in the words of Fed Chair Ben Bernanke, such “high public as well as private returns” that the Fed has championed such investments, noting they save states money by reducing costs of dropouts, special education, and crime prevention. Yet across the country, states are slashing funding for pre-kindergarten and even rolling back all day kindergarten. Now only about one-fourth of 4-year-olds are served by pre-K programs. Ten states have eliminated funding for pre-K altogether, including Arizona. Ohio eliminated funding for all-day kindergarten.

Every parent and teacher knows the importance of smaller classes, particularly in the early years, when individual attention is vital. Yet across the country, schools are facing layoffs of nearly 250,000 workers next year, many of them teachers. In Chester Upland, Pa., 40 percent of the teachers were eliminated, with class sizes rising from 21 to 30 in elementary schools and to 35 in high schools, prompting students to walk out.

School budgets have been cut in some 34 states and the District of Columbia. In Arizona, the cuts average about $530 per pupil. In Florida, $1 billion was cut in next year’s budget, or about $542 per student. Not surprisingly, these cuts fall hardest on the poorest districts that can’t afford to make up for them the way affluent districts can. The kids who have the greatest need for public education are suffering the deepest cuts.

So, it’s no surprise that conservatives think America needs fewer teachers. They’ve done everything they can to accomplish that end, and promise to do much more. What’s mystifying are their claims that fewer teachers would be good for American education.

It would not have been good for our son. That’s the reason I thanked his teacher when I emailed her. Third grade actually got off to a pretty rocky start for him. As his teacher, she ws instrumental in helping turn that around.

We knew he was a smart kid, but his struggles with attention and behavior overshadowed that at times. What was worse was that he knew he was a smart kid, but few increasingly frustrated with the problems that got in in way no matter how hard he tried. He began to change. In the mornings, as the time for him to leave school drew near, I saw dread come over him like a storm cloud. In the evenings, even after school, that cloud remained.

As parents, we grew concerned and met with his teacher and other school staff before the end of the first term, to figure out what kind of support our son needed – at school and at home. Then, we all worked as a team to make sure he got the support he needed.

It worked. Slowly, the successes started piling up, and our son’s confidence rose. The boy who had dreaded going to school began to look forward to events and activities at school, and started coming home excited about what he’d been learning and doing at school. Occasionally, he’d come home talking about a science experiment he’d done in class, and insist on recreating it at home. Upon seeing him so excited about learning, we were happy to oblige.

The school Geography Bee was probably the biggest example. Our son expressed an interest in participating. My husband and I supported his interest, by taking turns drilling him on the material every night, after homework and dinner. It turned out that our son has a knack for recalling what he’s read or heard. Thus he excelled in the event. Not only did he make the class team, but his teammates elected him captain. Even though his team finished a close second in the final event, our son proudly showed me his medal when I came home that evening.

The transformation from a kid who went out the door expecting to fail, to a kid shooting to get another “A” on his report card didn’t happen overnight. And it didn’t happen solely because of parental involvement. Sure, we’ve done everything we can to help; from the nightly 5-minute flash card drills on multiplication and division, to vocabulary reviews every morning, book reports, poetry assignments, and helping with countless other activities. In fact, our son’s teacher responded to my email by thanking my husband and I for all the support we gave our son at home.

But, let’s face it, he’s not with us most of the day. He spends his “peak learning” time with his teachers. Our efforts at home helped to turn things around. But our work at home wouldn’t have amounted to as much without dedicated teachers and school staff who not only cared enough, but had enough time and resources to help our son become the student we all knew he had the potential to be.

Over the past year, I became more involved in my son’s school as a volunteer. I got to see his learning environment first hand, when I volunteered in his classroom. The first thing I noticed was the class size. There were just 25 students in his class. I don’t know what the ideal class size is, but I know that a larger class would mean my son’s teacher would have less time to work with him one-on-one as she did this year.

We were in regular contact with our son’s teacher this year. Whether it was a question about homework or an upcoming assignment, she always responded with the information we needed. Sometimes, we would hear from the teacher, if there anything came up at school that we needed to follow up on at home. I never got the sense that she was in any way burdened by this level of communication. On the contrary, she seemed delighted to work with parents who were were engaged in their kid’s education, and supporting at home what he learned in class.

Again, I’m no expert on class size. Still, I’m pretty sure that with a bigger class, a teacher would also have less time to communicate with parents. Our son’s teacher did have the time to communicate with us on a regular basis, and I think it made all the difference.

Less funding for education means fewer teachers. Fewer teachers means larger classes. Larger classes means that students who need extra help or attention will be less likely to get it, and less likely to be successful.

Still, Mitt Romney doesn’t think class size matters. Thus, he thinks having fewer teachers won’t matter.

Listen, Mitt. We can’t all send out kids to private schools with an average class size of 12.

As the parent of a child who’s excelling in school because dedicated teachers had the time and resources to give him the help he needs, despite having a class twice that size, my response is inspired by a Pink Floyd song that you might consider adopting as a campaign theme song.

Hey Mitt, leave our teachers alone.

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