Funding the Future: Pushing Kids Off the Cliff?

Teacher Sarah Morse, center, helps during lunch at the Eastham Community Center Claskamas County Children's Commission Head S
Teacher Sarah Morse, center, helps during lunch at the Eastham Community Center Claskamas County Children's Commission Head Start Monday, April 9, 2012, in Oregon City, Ore. Oregon enrolls relatively few children in its state-funded pre-kindergarten program, but spends more money per student than almost every state, according to an annual report released Tuesday by the National Institute for Early Education. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Both of my children attend public school.

When my oldest daughter was in first grade, I helped her classroom teacher out for an hour or two a week. The teacher, a wonderful and committed one as all my children's teachers have been, asked me to work with one particular girl who was having trouble reading. She could identify the letters and knew what sounds they made but could not blend the sounds, a key step in learning to read. It was heartbreaking. She was clearly bright and I watched her become angry and withdrawn. I had no idea how to help her. I'm not a trained professional. And my daughter's teacher had 26 kids in her class and no para-professional. How could she teach all her students and give children with learning disabilities the attention they deserve? Soon after, the school evaluated the student and got her the help she needed.

We all help children with learning disabilities get the help they need to learn through the Individuals with Disabilities in Education (IDEA) program, which pools federal funds -- our tax dollars -- to give children like the one I tutored a trained reading tutor, or a resource room teacher or occupational therapist. One in five Americans has a learning disability and one million children between the ages of 6 and 21 receive some educational support for learning disabilities. We help students from low-income families, too. Through Title I, a federal program that gives school districts that want them the additional funds to use as they see fit to support schools with high numbers of poor students, schools can hire teachers, buy computers or science equipment or train teachers.

Americans agree that education is the gateway to opportunity. Let's look at the 2012 presidential campaign. Both President Obama and former Gov. Romney agreed on education's role in America as they sought our votes. President Obama said, "We know that education is everything to our children's future. We know that they will no longer just compete for good jobs with children from Indiana, but children from India and China and all over the world." Mitt Romney said "Education is the investment our generation makes in the future." When the president accused Gov. Romney of seeing education as an expense, Gov. Romney swore he would "not... cut education funding."

Now, with President Obama having won his reelection campaign and with a Democrat-controlled Senate and Republican-controlled House, where do we stand on education funding?

On a cliff. The "fiscal cliff" as it's called.

More a chopping block than a cliff, on January 2, 2013 automatic cuts that will slash "discretionary spending" in the federal budget, thanks to the failure of Congress to lift the debt ceiling and/or agree on spending cuts. What does this mean for our nation's children? Funds that get children with disabilities trained tutors or create computer labs for children in high poverty schools face massive cuts in funds.

Title I provides about $14.5 billion total per year, and in the 2009-10 school year served 21 million children to ensure that "all children have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education." IDEA provides about $12 billion annually to states and local education entities, serving over 6 million students per year. At current spending it does not cover the costs of a school district's special education programs, but it does help children with disabilities get some of the support they need to learn.

According to new research by the Center for Social Inclusion, poor children will lose almost $1.2 billion in Title I funding, impacting 1,761,000 kids. This affects all of our kids. Thirty five percent will be white. But the cuts will be devastating for Black and Latino kids -- almost 60 percent of those who will lose support due to the cuts. Additionally, well over half a million children with disabilities (537,000), 53 percent white and 41 percent Black and Latino, will see educational support cut.

The number of poor children in public schools is growing. In a recession, that may not be a surprise. Because you have to earn below a certain income to receive free or reduced school lunch, this becomes one way to measure school poverty. The number of students receiving subsidized lunches rose to 21 million in 2009 - 2010 from 18 million in 2006-2007, a 17 percent increase. In 2010, 22 percent of America's children lived in poverty and 7.4 million lived in extreme poverty. Almost 2/3 of Black, Latino and Native American children are poor. And there is an opportunity gap to fill here. A recent study shows the U.S. ranking 27th out of 31 developed countries in measures of equal opportunity. According to a recent report by the Brookings Institution, roughly 60 percent of Americans make it to middle class status by middle age, but there are huge gaps based on race, gender and poverty status at birth. The report identifies what key life stages are where student performance increases the odds of getting to middle-class status. Education is a big part of it.

About half of all school funding comes from local property taxes, which means that poor communities have less money for schools. Make no mistake; money matters. Aggregate measures of per pupil spending, generally, support improved student performance. Money needs to be well spent to help students.

And thanks to a lot of really smart people who have been looking at what works, we know some strategies for helping kids from low-income families, including children of color, learn. We can reduce class sizes, support early childhood programs, and help get more qualified teachers into schools that need them. This costs money and if we cut funds for vulnerable children, a sizable and growing segment of America, we make it harder to become middle class, compete in a global economy and build the nation.

Congress must act to stop these and other cuts to programs that invest in our most precious resource: our children.