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Whiplash: Aren’t Our Students the Most Important “Infrastructure” of All?

In an Oakland elementary school a few weeks back I saw an unusual portrait on the office wall. America’s First Family, it said, and there were Sasha and Malia, Barack and Michelle smiling down at everyone. African American children in this school can look up and see a family that looks like their own honored. But when I think of what the children in these schools face in the coming months, why do I feel a sense of foreboding and dread?


It could be because California’s Governor Schwarzenegger has vetoed the budget passed by the Democratically controlled legislature because it did not make enough cuts, and state Republicans are opposing any solution to the $40 billion deficit that includes any new taxes. And in Los Angeles, the District has sent out a letter informing 2,300 teachers that they may be laid off next month due to cuts the state is already making.

California’s school children and teachers are going to be the next big victims of the collapse in our economy. A a dozen years ago, when the state coffers were full, then-governor Pete Wilson launched a class-size reduction program. In California today most kindergarten to third grade classrooms have no more than twenty students. But these class sizes are likely to go back up to thirty or more in many districts across the state, once proposed cuts take effect.

Meanwhile, President-elect Obama has pledged to make the repair and modernization of our schools a top priority. In his radio address of December 6, he said:

...my economic recovery plan will launch the most sweeping effort to modernize and upgrade school buildings that this country has ever seen. We will repair broken schools, make them energy-efficient, and put new computers in our classrooms. Because to help our children compete in a 21st century economy, we need to send them to 21st century schools.

No firm dollar figure for this effort has been decided on. But the collapse of our state’s economy and the dire warnings from our state capitol have me wondering how we are caring for more than our school buildings.

The dictionary defines infrastructure as “the fundamental facilities and systems serving a country, city, or area, as transportation and communication systems, power plants, and schools.” As a society, we are able to see the value of investing in these facilities, because we will get two benefits, one immediate and one long term. We get an economic boost from the jobs created and the dollars flowing to pay for materials and construction. And we get the long term benefit of improved facilities, which continue to serve us after they are built.

Supporters of investing this money in school infrastructure have suggested it will improve student outcomes by reducing crowded conditions and creating safer, more technologically advanced schools. But at the same time we are preparing to invest in facilities, it appears we are ready to disinvest in the teachers and staff that make these facilities work. And while new schools may help relieve crowding, the layoff of thousands of teachers will have the opposite effect.

Just like the roads and buildings on the drawing boards, our children’s minds are being built each and every day they are in school. Their fundamental ability to read, write, and reason will be undermined if the schools are de-funded. What’s more, we are sending our children a blunt message about how they are valued as part of society.

Our schools are indeed a key part of our nation’s infrastructure – but schools are much more than the buildings that house them. A school is alive with the students who fill its corridors and classrooms. Will they be fed and healthy? Will they be moved mid-year, crammed 30-plus into classrooms accustomed to holding 20? Will their teachers be honored and decently paid, their health cared for? Or will they face layoffs and cuts to their health benefits?

At a time when millions of students across the nation face economic stress and even hunger and homelessness, it is more important than ever that our public schools offer an oasis of stability and support for learning. The quality and strength of our schools is not something that should be compromised when times are tough -- it is something that should be strengthened as one of the central pillars of our society.

I understand that our new president cannot solve all our woes with the wave of a wand. But I hope that our leaders, both state and federal, come to understand that shiny new schools will be of little value if they are not well-staffed by dedicated teachers.

Are budget cuts hitting your school? What do you think of the prospect of public investment in educational infrastructure?

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