Closing the Other Gap

For the last two years, I was a high school English teacher in Baltimore City. However, after experiencing frustrations with certain administrative policies, I left teaching to pursue studies in education policy and management. My purpose in earning this degree is to eventually change the policies that hurt my students as a teacher.

While here, I have been extremely fortunate to intern with Boston Public Schools. Working in their central office, I see the operational side of running a school district. The quality of human capital in the office is tremendous. Although Boston schools are going through tough economic times, we are doing the best we can to make decisions benefiting all 56,000 students.

However, there are several hundred people that would disagree with my opinion. Just this week the school committee passed a proposal to close or merge several schools. After a passionate school committee meeting, teachers, parents, students, and community members from the affected schools left downtrodden. There is a mourning process these people will now go through. Students affected by the closings will have preference to get into schools of their choice. Hopefully, in due time, they will welcome the new opportunities afforded to them.

In other economic times, we would not be forced to make all of these cuts. The buzz words in education often focus on achievement or access gaps, but there is another gap that needs to be addressed, the financial gap. Boston is not a unique scenario; districts across the nation are facing tough economic times especially with funds from the stimulus package running out. Many districts are trying to be proactive and making deep cuts now so that this does not become an annual process.

But what can we do?

First option is to unite and advocate for our children to state government. While in Baltimore, I experienced first hand the power of community organizing. When Governor Martin O'Malley proposed a plan to cut funding to schools across the state, with Baltimore taking a larger hit compared to other districts, the Baltimore Education Coalition spoke up and organized marches at the state capitol in Annapolis. Others called their local state legislators or wrote op-eds to the Baltimore Sun and other publications. A full court press was enacted resulting in Gov. O'Malley restoring funding to the schools.

At the same time, districts must always be constantly evaluating the way they do things. It is the proactive, not reactive, approach that will allow for services to be streamlined and more effective in serving the needs of students, teachers, and families. Constant reflection and collaboration will help in this process.

The gap is real and the effects have played out differently across the country. In Detroit, constant financial mismanagement has led to the appointment of an emergency financial manager and a deficit of over $300 million. With constant deflation in student enrollment, it will take a miracle to get things back on track. However, this problem was foreshadowed back in the 90's when Governor John Engler enacted state control of the district. Detroit has always experienced reactive choices to closing its gaps. It needs a proactive movement by its citizens to make a long-term change.

All hope is not lost. In 2006, Pittsburgh faced tough economic times. However, they addressed their financial crisis head on. Although a much smaller district than Baltimore, Boston, or Detroit, Pittsburgh's closure of 25 percent of its school was still a bold move. As we approach five years since that tough decision was made, Pittsburgh schools are thriving. A leading district in education reform, the proactive approach in closing their financial gap allowed them to better utilize financial resources to serve their students.

No one enjoys the closing of schools, nor am I recommending that it solves all problems during tough economic times. But I do not advocate avoiding the problem or constantly cutting the budget across the board every year. As I continue my studies, I realize all of my lectures, discussions, and presentations are theory. It is when I am at my internship, in a school, or at the school committee meeting that the rubber meets the road, and I must bridge the gap of theory and practice. Closing that gap is hard, but is necessary for me in order to be effective.

Closing the financial gap among districts is hard too, but necessary.