'Number sense' necessary to assess impact of school-funding policies

“Number sense” is an important part of learning math. If you know what a number represents you can use it to make sense of the world. I remember my kids collecting pop-top rings to take to school to help them understand 100 and 1,000. I don’t think they tackled 1 million—too hard to collect that many rings in one year!

The number I am trying to understand now is $5.5 million. This is the money the state of Ohio owes to our school district but withheld this year in order to fund private and religious education through vouchers, Peterson grants and charter schools. This number is too big to represent with pop-tops.

I know $5.5 million is a lot of money, but, without knowing exactly what it would buy in terms of education, it is easy to brush it off and ignore it. Lack of perspective on the meaning of this large amount of money shields us from facing the facts, from outrage, from action.

Given the 30-year attack on the public sector, the number won’t bother some: Just tighten your belt a bit! I can’t buy that with this number.

Just before spring break, my school district laid off 49 of its 452 teachers, two counselors and a security monitor. The cuts will save the district about $3.5 million. The argument focused on “right-sizing” the district to conform to enrollment losses over the last decade. There was no mention of another driver—shrinking state funds.

I know that 52 adults who work in schools represent a lot of education, a lot of personal attention, a lot of concern, a lot of value added and a lot of opportunity. Imagine the impact of losing $5.5 million to privatization! The number is heartbreaking.

Here is the story problem: If cutting 52 positions saves a school district $3.5 million, how many positions would a school district have to drop to save $5.5 million?

If my arithmetic is right, it’s about 82, most of whom would be teachers. So the cost of privatization, if measured in the most important school-based variable in education, is about 82 teachers. This is drastic.

When the district announced the cuts, members of the public showed up in force to voice their concerns about the scale of the reduction. The cuts have real consequences for the lives of teachers, levels of confidence in our schools, the provision of necessary support services to children, and our schools’ ability to deliver an amazing educational program.

I am not here to argue if downsizing made sense. I agree that some right-sizing is valid given the steady loss of enrollment—some of it due to population loss and some of it due to privatization—but it is a teachable moment. We need to know that the steady drain of resources from our children due to Ohio’s attack on public education, which it undertook to feed voucher programs and charter schools, is a serious threat to education quality. We can’t cut our way to balancing the budget without causing serious damage to learning.

By taking money away from local districts, the state is abdicating its responsibility to provide a thorough and efficient system of public schools. Local taxpayers will need to make up for the flow of public money to nonpublic education when students enroll in charters or use vouchers to attend private schools. This shift violates three Supreme Court decisions that required the state to provide a larger share of the funding to local districts, not less.

I hate Ohio’s rating of schools, but if you take any stock in the measurement mania, our public schools are the leaders when it comes to value added—the measurement of the effect of teachers on student progress. We’ve got great teachers and class sizes, enrichment programs, and social supports that allow for personal attention. They add value!

Ohio school districts are finally pushing back. At least 47 boards of education have invoiced the state for funds lost to unregulated charter schools. On March 20, superintendents sent a letter to the state calling for an end to its destructive policies.

Local communities have lost control of their schools. Local boards are left holding the bag for Ohio’s draconian policies, which include implementing intolerable testing and deciding how many positions to cut, instead of working to build a great education experience.

We need this to stop. Maybe if we can understand the meaning of numbers in terms that matter, we can build the political will to save public education.

Susie Kaeser

Susie Kaeser is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights and former director of Reaching Heights. She serves on the national board of Parents for Public Schools.

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Volume 9, Issue 5, Posted 6:39 PM, 04.29.2016