Frustrations over education cuts came to a boil as Spring Break began in Iowa. Break allowed a chance for students to visit their homes and realize the next generation will face a vastly different curriculum thanks to budget cuts in nearly every school district.
Iowa’s education fund has dropped from $1.271 billion in fiscal year 2009 to $815 million in the current fiscal year. The Iowa Legislature is aiming for $844 million next year’s budget while Gov. Chet Culver has put a target at $861 million.
Des Moines Public Schools have proposed eliminating 480 positions, most of them teachers, and will make a final decision in April.
Ames Public Schools is considering cutting positions, eliminating funding for high school dances and eliminating middle school orchestra — a savings of $45,286, while scaling back music programs in elementary schools. All to reach a goal of cutting $3.5 million from their budget for the next fiscal year and $1.5 million for the 2011–’12 fiscal year.
In response, a Web site and Twitter account launched called “Save Ames Music.”
Outside of Iowa, Kansas City, Mo., is considering closing half of the public schools. Teachers and assistant principals may be laid off over the next two years for the first time in Omaha Public Schools history after a 12–0 vote March 15 by the Omaha Public School Board.
On March 14, Sen. Tom Harkin and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan held a town hall-styled meeting with a standing-room only crowd of near 150 at Morris Elementary on Des Moines’ south side where Duncan largely pushed President Barack Obama’s planned overhaul of No Child Left Behind.
Outside, concerned parents stood with signs, like Jeffery J. Weiss’ reading “Make Music Not War.” Others distributed flyers urging support for music education funding. Weiss was there representing the Catholic Peace Ministry with his two daughters.
Before the doors were opened, a group of middle school teachers stood and discussed the cuts their respective schools were facing.
“I’m afraid for education, I’m afraid for our kids,” said Susan Boll, a Carlisle middle school science teacher about why she was attending. “We have been dumbed down so much and the last eight [years] have been phenomenal.”
No Child Left Behind was the hallmark achievement of President George W. Bush’s first year in office and based success of children performing on grade-level requirements determined by scores on standardized testing such as the Iowa Tests of Educational Development.
Betsy LeBlond has been a certified substitute teacher for more than 15 years because she does not want to “deal with the bureaucracy.”
“Teachers are so run down, so exhausted, so unsupported by the administration,” LeBlond commented.
Many of the attendees waiting for the start of the panel expressed passionate disapproval of NCLB and proposed cuts to English Second Language educators as well as to the arts.
Duncan said NCLB “didn’t work” and put a spotlight on the achievement gap. He added, “One of the big failures is money was left behind.”
“The law was too punitive,” Duncan said as he declared a need to reward excellence. “There’s success out there but no one is learning from them.”
Duncan emphasized giving more autonomy to school systems and less “micro-managing from Washington.”
Both Harkin and Duncan boasted the $350 million included in the Recovery Act for state education systems, though the Iowa State Education Association has said lawmakers used a majority of the money this year.
Duncan said investing in technology could create a “great equalizer” among schools and added assessment testing needed reevaluating.
“If we raise the bar, I have no doubt kids will do better,” he said.
Once questions from the audience were taken in the meeting, a man quickly stood and voiced his frustrations with Iowa’s education system.
“You say you’ve been there for 23 years; well, Senator Harkin, you get an ‘F’!” he burst in reference to Harkin’s years as the head of the Senate Education Appropriations Committee.
Attendees brought up charter schools, Gifted & Talented programs and music programs, including one parent who said, “My third grader will not have choir, orchestra and band like my fifth grader did.”
Weiss shouted from the back, “Cut the Pentagon budget.” The sentiment was quickly picked up by many other audience members, who called for a shift from defense spending to education spending. Duncan and Harkin tried to move the conversation forward, but were continually interrupted by the same shouting.
Eventually Duncan admitted, “I’ve been thinking the same thing.”
Maggie Rawland of Des Moines, a retired school teacher, had been holding up a sign which read “$ for Arts, Not Arms!” She said Duncan’s comment about defense spending was a bright light during the discussion. Earlier that week, students arranged a gathering outside of Merrill Middle School in Des Moines to protest the cuts before the school day started March 8. The rally was organized by Theresa Hoffman’s language arts students while Hoffman got an OK with Merrill’s principal.
“They were very upset that we lost shop and drama [last year], and then when they heard we were going to lose vocal music and that I am retiring and a math teacher is retiring, and they’re not replacing us, they’re concerned with the size of classes,” Hoffman explained.
Hoffman pointed to her frustrations with the DMPS district’s plan to lay off teachers while new positions are developed with people who will travel between schools and “help teachers be better teachers,” as she put it.
“Some of the schools went into a program called International Baccalaureate,” Hoffman said, adding that despite her’s and other colleague’s planned retirements they were still put through the training.
IB is a nonprofit educational foundation founded in Switzerland in 1968 holding a strong interest in preparation for an international future.
“They paid full dollar to fly us. I went all the way to Montreal, Canada, got ‘wined and dined,’” Hoffman revealed. “I was in a class size of about 10 and taught by a woman who was flown out there from Colorado Springs — it didn’t make sense to me.”Hoffman said her plane trip cost $700 and estimated the hotel rooms cost above $200 a night for three nights, not including the price of the training itself and food and drink, for about 60 staffers from Merrill and another 60 from Goodrell. Hoffman further claimed eight positions were excessed at Goodrell Middle School because they ran out of money paying for the IB training.
“They are making them excessed because they’re saying you have to be IB trained to be in that school,” she said.
Hoffman has taught for 33 years in both Des Moines and Muscatine, and now has a master’s degree. She said the teaching methods and responsibilities have changed, as well as the family structure contributing to the current situation. Hoffman also pointed out the decline in Iowa’s rank in education. She attributed part of the decline to NCLB, which she called “a bunch of crap.”
“We are in a profession where people are too afraid to speak out,” Hoffman claimed.
Ashleigh Mills, senior in English education from Des Moines, switched her focus last semester from going to law school to opting to become a teacher in order to give back to the community. Now amid massive budget cutting she admits the profession is “scary” and does not see incentive for progress. Mills is disappointed to see arts and physical education being targeted, calling it “cutting creativity,” further explaining how teachers pointed out her gift of writing prompting her focus on English in college.
“Kids need that outlet,” Mills said. “It’s a long day from 7 to 3 and they need that release, like recess.”
On March 9, community members attended the Des Moines School Board meeting to voice their concern. Two days later, a rally in support of funding for the arts and music was held on the steps of the Iowa Capitol.
Patrick J. Kearney, a music educator from Johnston High School, is encouraging the 6,324 members of his “Support Music Education in the Des Moines Public Schools” Facebook group to attend the DMPS Board budget forum next Tuesday.
Des Moines may receive $26.6 million more than what administrators are currently expecting as a part of the state’s plan to pay districts enough to allow their budgets to expand by 2 percent in the 2010–’11 school year.
Mills believes at this point the state should be allocating more money to education as a way out of the current recession.
“We need smart kids,” she explained. “We’re raising the future. It sounds cliché, but it’s true.”