While Governor Dayton and the legislature are still negotiating over how K-12 education dollars will be spent, they do have a general consensus on how much the state will spend—roughly $14 billion for the next biennium.
When adjusted for inflation and population changes, this funding is essentially a cut for most school districts. It follows eight years of Pawlenty’s educational cuts. When combined with expiring federal funding, originally aimed at preventing teacher layoffs during the economic downturn, schools are again left to shed more services and staff as they head into the next school year.
Statewide, teachers are bracing for that sheet of pink paper or transfer notice in their box the next time they travel to the mailroom.
Last year, members of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts saw 825 layoffs. According to Executive Director Scott Croonquist, this continued trend is likely to push that number closer to 1000 in the coming year. That’s from the metro area alone, and only member districts. The totals from the whole of Minnesota will be even more staggering.
This large-scale staff shuffling also leads to educational instability for the students. Teachers that go in search of new schools, as well as those who have been retained, are often forced to teach a different grade level or entirely different content, such as a long-time civics teacher transitioning to economics, which both fall under a social studies licensure.
Good teaching takes experience and consistency. These wide shifts don’t allow teachers the opportunity to grow in an academic area. The way a third grader learns math is different than a sixth grader. The best method to teach physics is different than biology, history different than English. This “teacher churn” will tarnish the educational excellence we as Minnesotans have enjoyed and prided ourselves on the past century.
Lisa Meyer, the Spanish teacher at United South Central High School in Wells, just northwest of Albert Lea, explained first-hand some of the difficulties in switching schools.
“The biggest struggle in changing schools, specifically within a foreign language program, is the differences in curriculum.”
Lisa went from acting as a long-term substitute at USC to teaching Spanish and English at Mankato East High School, before settling in as the Spanish instructor back at USC in 2008.
“I wanted to keep teaching as if I was at East, using its foreign language curriculum. Without having textbooks, my first year of teaching at USC was filled with trial and error,” she says. The problem with electives, such as foreign language, is that there are limited state standards, leaving wide variations from district to district in curriculum requirements. Even in core subjects, districts sill vary in how their curricula meet state standards.
Several years of cutbacks have made “teacher churn” increasingly prevalent. Teachers will continue bouncing from school to school and department to department. With shrinking department sizes, new instructors will be left with fewer senior staff to help them make the transition from one school to the next. It will also, as in the case of Mrs. Meyer, leave new teachers underprepared due to a lack of consistent curricula.
This forced movement is real. As of May 2009, almost 40 percent of Minneapolis teachers had to change schools at least once in the past four years. In ’07-’08, Minneapolis lost 16 percent of teachers through funding cuts. For comparison, New York City lost 3.5 percent over the same time span, while Chicago lost only one percent over ’06-’07.
According to a report from the U.S. Census Bureau, Minnesota currently ranks 16th in per-pupil spending yet students are still achieving at great levels. However, this trend will be difficult to maintain if we continue cutting funding, scale back educational opportunities, and layoff thousands of teachers.
Too many people are asking, “How should we cut teachers without hurting educational outcomes?” Instead, we should ask, “Why aren’t we doing everything possible to make sure our teachers stay in our schools?”
Continual layoffs will hurt education in Minnesota beyond today’s classroom and scare away bright young educators. “Why would you go into this if there are constant cuts, layoffs, unfair criticism that you are responsible for every flaw in society … pay freezes [and] elimination of collective bargaining rights?” asks Tom Dooher, Education Minnesota President in an April Star Tribune article.
If the teaching profession is unable to attract the brightest up-and-coming minds, education will see further quality cuts. A prospective teacher with a stable job option in a different career field will be increasingly likely to choose the latter if the profession is constantly being blamed and bashed instead of compensated and encouraged.
Tremendous public schools are the cornerstone of our great state—a principle on which Minnesota’s economy is based. We can continue our tradition and reputation as a state in which students are given the best possible opportunities from the education system, but only if we allow ourselves. We need to stand up for education by funding our schools, keeping our teachers employed, and offering our young students one of the best educations in the country.