Saving money now on education will cost lots later

WASHINGTON — When you see a cluster of elementary schoolchildren at a bus stop or street-crossing, struggling with bristling backpacks full of textbooks and school papers, it's hard to imagine that kids in distant lands are carrying even weightier tomes, slogging through more homework and spending longer hours in class. But many of them are. That's among the reasons that American children consistently post lower test scores than children in several other countries.

Education activists — from mega-wealthy wise men such as Bill Gates to policy experts such as Education Secretary Arne Duncan — believe the nation's economic competitiveness depends on lifting our academic standards. Some even worry that the current generation of schoolchildren may be the first whose level of educational attainment falls below that of their parents.

Given widespread fears about the nation's ability to maintain its leadership in a world growing smaller and flatter, should we allow school systems to go broke as a result of the recession? Is this any time for widespread teacher layoffs, overcrowded classrooms and shorter school days?

Yet that's just what some local school leaders are proposing. Across the country, from California to Georgia, school superintendents are proposing severe austerity cuts to cover budget shortfalls. Duncan — who recently said that between 100,000 and 300,000 teachers nationwide could lose their jobs — has called it an "education catastrophe."

"We're hearing about furloughs, program cuts, class size increases, layoffs. Some schools are canceling summer school, some are canceling after-school programs — all kinds of things that directly affect children. We believe children need more time in school," said Assistant Secretary of Education Peter Cunningham.

Enrichment programs such as after-school classes are often seen as remedial necessities for disadvantaged students; indeed, budget cuts could be a dire setback for schools that have struggled to boost the reading and arithmetic scores of less-affluent children. But middle-class kids in more prosperous districts will also get less individual attention from teachers struggling with bigger classes and little time for preparation.

"Let's start with some basic facts," said Patrick McCarthy, president and CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which funds education research and innovation. "The education crisis is by no means simply a crisis for low-income students. We used to rank (number) one in the world for the percentage of the population that graduated from a four-year-school. Now we rank 25th."

In some places, the battle over school cuts is playing out as a contest between obstinate teachers' unions and overtaxed property owners.

And some critics of the teaching bureaucracy believe that the budget crisis could help promote higher standards by making it easier for administrators to fire incompetent instructors.

But that argument seems a bit too simple. It hides a larger and untidy truth: Whacking away at payrolls will hurt good teachers as well as less-accomplished ones. You can't lay off thousands of teachers without losing some enthusiastic and highly motivated instructors who change kids' lives. In 75 percent of districts, teachers will be let go according to seniority, McCarthy noted, a practice that could force out some of the brightest and best while retaining some of the less accomplished faculty.

To prevent drastic cuts in local schools. Duncan has asked Congress to pass another round of stimulus spending specifically for education. For all the public skepticism about the stimulus package, the legislation passed last year included about $100 billion in emergency financing for education. However, states spent much of that in the current year to save more than 300,000 teaching jobs nationwide.

With mid-term elections coming and public anxiety about government spending growing, however, Congress seems unlikely to add to the red ink — even for the best of reasons. That's too bad. Investing in our schools might cost us some money now, but we'd be repaid many times over with a new generation of inventors, entrepreneurs and artists.

Reach Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution at cynthia@ajc.com; follow her blog at blogs.ajc.com/cynthia-tucker.

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