To see how spending cuts directly affect education in the United States, one need not look further than Philadelphia.
In September 2013, Philadelphia public schools opened with 3,859 fewer staff members than the previous year after the Republican-dominated legislature and Governor Tom Corbett cut $961 million from public education.
Additionally, the opening occurred only after the city borrowed $50 million, Philly.com reported. While Corbett has since released $45 million, the impacts of these cuts continue to be felt in dramatic ways for students and teachers alike.
Given that Philadelphia is one of the largest school districts in the country, the larger scale impacts of these cuts reveal how other smaller districts are also struggling to stay afloat.
In North Carolina, for instance, the Republican controlled legislature is currently looking to move $500 million out of public education, including $90 million into a voucher program for private schools.
Oklahoma public education spending has dropped more than any other state, down 23% per pupil since 2008. Wisconsin has also seen similar double-digit cuts between 2008 and 2013, which resulted in 2,100 public school employees being laid off.
Direct Impact on Classrooms
Similarly, Philadelphia’s 3,859 laid-off employees felt the first and most immediate impact of education cuts. Adding to the sting, fewer faculty and staff resulted in the closure of 24 schools, meaning 9,000 students were dispersed among 53 different schools.
Class sizes increased, with some teachers having as many as 48 students, according toThinkProgress. Counselors and librarians also experienced a reduction in hours or were removed from schools entirely in some cases.
Though the release of $45 million from the state means the district will be able to rehire 400 employees and fund music and athletic programs through the end of the year, nationally, the United States still lags behind other Western nations in basic literacy and numeracy proficiency.
Though money alone cannot impact student learning, overall disparities in spending are evident in the initial withholding of these funds to Philadelphia schools, particularly among low-income or racial minority students.
Tragic Death Highlights Safety Concerns
On the afternoon of September 25, 2013, Laporshia Massey, a sixth grader at Bryant Elementary, was sent home after experiencing trouble breathing due to asthma.
Her school is one of many in Philadelphia with a nurse on staff only a few days per week, so Massey was unable to receive treatment on site. City Paper reported after Massey’s father returned home, she collapsed and had to be rushed to the hospital, where she later died.
The National Association of School Nurses released a chart ranking schools in terms of their ratio of students per nurse. While many would blame spending cuts to Philadelphia public schools for Massey’s death, an in-depth op-ed at Forbes says it’s difficult to specifically charge the 2013 education cuts because:
“The ratio of nurses to students is state-mandated and currently sits at 1,500:1.”
However, this doesn’t mean student safety couldn’t benefit from increased spending. If anything, Massey’s death reveals larger shortfalls nationwide in non-classroom spending predating the 2013 round of federal and state level cuts.
Uncertain Future for Education Funding
Without any clear effort to fully restore or increase funding to appropriate levels within schools, Philadelphia and other school districts are turning to fundraising drives for things like school supplies. Philadelphia successfully raised more than $500,000 from their drive.
Chicago, another school district facing a massive budget shortfall, has also relied on similar fundraising campaigns.
At the same time, in many schools across the country, teacher unions and students have staged protests, including a sit-in at Constitution High School (covered by independent educational blog the notebook).
These efforts to raise awareness about inequalities in education funding for public schools are being supported by foundations like the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Carla Thompson, vice president of program strategy, cited the work of TCF senior fellow Richard D. Kahlenberg in a Huffington Post article:
“[Kahlenberg] conducted a study that found when low-income students were able to attend more affluent schools, they succeeded academically and surpassed their peers who remained in high-poverty schools.”
With these study results the Kellogg Foundation is working to fund grant programs to increase family involvement in education, despite budget shortfalls. Though it’s difficult to speculate on the long-term effects of these specific programs, increased family engagement could help offset negative effects from state spending cuts, including in Philadelphia public schools.