With state budgets in crisis, education is on the chopping block across the country. Schools are laying off employees and axing programs. California is so cash-strapped that its kids might have to start summer vacation early.
School districts across New Jersey recently found out they were losing a big chunk of their state funding. A number are losing all of it.
That's thanks to Gov. Chris Christie, who rode a wave of resentment about lost jobs and high property taxes into the governor's mansion last fall. He pledged to cut government spending, and during his recent budget address, he said his $820 million cut to education was aimed squarely at teacher pay and benefits.
"Is it fair to have any public employees getting 4- to 5-percent salary increases every year, even when inflation is zero percent, paid for by citizens struggling to survive?" Christie asked. "Is it fair to have New Jersey taxpayers foot the bill for 100 percent of the health insurance costs of teachers and their families from the day they are hired until the day they die?"
The Real Impact Of Cutbacks
But even in districts such as Montclair, N.J., where teachers have agreed to freeze their salaries, 81 teachers will be laid off, classes will be more crowded, and anything in the curriculum that isn't required by law may be dropped.
Barbara Elder Weller, principal of Rand Elementary School, says these cuts will hurt low-income students the most because studies show they begin school behind their middle-class counterparts.
"We really customize and tailor instruction to meet the needs of every single learner in the class, and it's really hard to do that when you have few resources, fewer support people and more children in the class," Weller says.
Rand stands to lose six teachers and two support staff members — or 13 percent of its workforce. Weller is particularly upset about losing her full-time social worker, who helps kids deal with problems at home and in school. Also lost will be a mentoring program, which includes a group of fifth-graders who struggle with classroom behavior and meet each week with teens from the high school.
The cuts will also hit a program called IMANI, which helps high-school kids with tutoring and college applications. Asana Akpaeti, 18, got into college after taking an SAT prep class that can cost $1,000 elsewhere.
"I know personally I wouldn't be able to afford those classes, so IMANI definitely helps people who still need to go to college and take the SAT to be able to prepare for that without having their families stress about where they're going to prepare for it, because they can come here," Akpaeti says.
Rising Property Taxes Ahead
Next to Montclair, people in the tiny affluent hamlet of Glen Ridge, N.J., are also upset. Some teachers, such as Diane Blazier, do not appreciate the broadside from the governor.
"I feel very hurt because when you're a teacher, you give it all," Blazier says. "I bring things at home to do. I work in the summers. I give extra hours. We've always agreed to make a little less to get the benefits because we knew that was a perk."
Blazier began teaching 24 years ago when starting salaries were about $18,000 a year. Now she's at the top of the pay scale — about $80,000, which is among the highest in the country. But the cost of living is very high, and teachers, like every other homeowner in New Jersey, have the highest average property taxes in the nation.
"We all pay upwards of $15,000 to $20,000 in taxes," says Amy Owens, a parent of two young daughters in Glen Ridge.
The state's cut could force local communities to raise their own property taxes to save schools.
"We feel we've gotten a wonderful service for that up until now," Owens says. "But we've seen our property taxes go up every year, and now they'll go up again. And our services are going to be cut. That's going to affect our school ranking and our property values."
Christie's budget requires approval from the New Jersey Legislature. So parents and school boards say they'll take their fight to restore funding to the schools to the state capital.