The Cost of Education

A few weekends ago I was at a party, nursing a beer and making small talk with some people I had every intention of forgetting within the hour. One young woman mentioned she was in law school at a prestigious university in Morningside Heights.

"And what do you do?" she asked me.

"I'm a high school English teacher in the Bronx."

"Oh, wow -- what's that like?"

I thought for a moment about what to say. In response to this oft-posed question, I usually go for one of two angles: Absurd events of day-to-day school life, or equally absurd regulations and agendas of our mysterious higher-ups in the Board of Education. "Well, with the budget cuts this year, it's really a mess," I said, acridly. I was coming off of a week in which our school's entire Advanced Placement program had been slashed, in part due to the cost-ineffectiveness of having classes with so few students at a time. "It's just amazing how little money anyone is willing to allocate towards schools --"

"Oh, I know! At my law school, we still have chalkboards," she interrupted, with no trace of irony. "I mean, really. Where do our tuition dollars go?"

I stared at her, dumbfounded. "I don't think the lack of renovations at an Ivy League law school is really a comparable situation with educational inequalities of Bronx public schools," I finally muttered, but she was already conversing with someone else.

The poverty of inner-city schools is one of those issues about which everyone has an opinion, but I've found that most people are hard-pressed to describe what this looks like on a day-to-day basis. This year, budgets of public schools all over the city have been slashed. In ours, that has meant everything from the loss of school aides -- adults who help with security, equipment distribution, contacting parents, mediating fights, etc. -- when they were deemed non-essential personnel, to the cancellation of our fledgling AP program, to the rationing of paper and Xerox copies to a set number of pages per teacher each month. (The current number is 1000; when you're teaching 115 kids, that goes fast.)

Our budget for books, while marginally better than some other purses, is also limited; in the English department, we decide whether it's more important to replace our lost copies of Julius Caesar and ripped-up Lord of the Flies paperbacks -- and to buy more of each, to accommodate our ever-increasing student body -- or whether that money would be better spent on something new. You usually can't do both. When books are on shortage, we often end up using "class sets" -- 35 copies of the book that "live" in the classroom at all times, and are read only in class, thus making it impossible to give the students any reading assignments for homework.

What struck me as both funny and sad, at a recent faculty meeting, was the announcement that our school had no money for detention. When I asked what overhead costs were actually associated with keeping disobedient students after school for 45 minutes, the principal explained that we no longer had any money for "per session," funds used to pay faculty or staff-members for running activities outside of their regular school hours such as clubs or review sessions. Because there is no money to pay for the kids to be supervised in detention, the students either have phone calls made to their parents (largely ineffective as a deterrent to bad behavior, in the view of most teachers) or are suspended, with nothing in between. The cancellation of detention strikes me as a humorous and ironic fulfillment of my own high school fantasies, particularly given my current role as the person who would be handing detentions out -- but this situation clearly isn't ideal from a disciplinary perspective.

My students regularly ask why our school is so "poor," and discussions of the ailing economy or disparities in area property taxes never seem like a good enough responses. The students ask why they can't go on more field trips; they groan when three out of our school's four DVD players are broken, making it infeasible to view movies of the books they read in class; they come back from visits to schools in more affluent areas, when they go to meet up with cousins or friends, and say with palpable envy, "Wow, you should have seen it, Miss -- everything was mad new and clean."

Recently some of their classrooms have been outfitted with Smart Boards, but this addition is too little, too late. Everything from the school building's crumbling auditorium, to the 20-year-old off-kilter window shades, to the bare patches in the run-down athletic field, to the history textbooks that don't mention 9/11, all send our students one unambiguous message: Your education isn't important enough to invest in. And with America falling behind other developed nations in a number of educational metrics, that's a message we can ill-afford to send.