Sunday, July 26, 2009

Recession strikes back

A few days ago, Illinois announced a long list of cuts in educational funding in an effort to balance their budget. Buried between devastating cuts in preschool programs ($123 million) and bilingual education (19%), was a total reduction of gifted education programs. The state is no longer funding them at all (you can read about it here).

On the one hand, this is not as dire as it looks at first glance. Illinois has been hacking away at the gifted programs for years. Our district, for example, went from having a gifted coordinator in each school to having two for the entire district of 6 schools. It is my understanding (although I'll certainly be checking on this) that the gifted program in our school district is no longer funded by the state anyway. However, for the state to remove all funding is for the state to say, "these programs are not important." The state is saying that teaching children at their appropriate level does not matter. And that is a very dangerous message to be sending.

Laura VanderKam at Gifted Exchange suggests that this may give parents of gifted students more ammunition for grade acceleration. Grade acceleration, she points out, does not cost anything the way special programs do. Moreover, grade acceleration actually reduces per student spending, because accelerated students spend less time in school. But for those who have struggled with their school districts over acceleration, funding cuts may, indeed, cause schools to reconsider their policies.

But I'm not yet convinced by the acceleration argument, nor am I convinced that acceleration is right for my child. If our school's gifted program is cut, then what? Probably we'll be back to what we've been doing -- working with individual teachers ourselves, only we'll have to provide more curriculum on our own, because presumably the gifted coordinator will no longer be there to help us find materials. The alternatives would be home schooling and acceleration. And home schooling may not even be a viable option, because I really need to scare up some income. I don't like having my choices reduced.

More alarming even than the Illinois gifted funding cuts is the financial crisis our district is already having. We are looking at a $2.3 million deficit this year, a deficit caused by a series of things -- poor management from the last board, bad hiring choices resulting in multiple superintendents on the payroll for several years in a row, difficult contract negotiations for teachers, violent shifts in student enrollment from year to year, failure to pass tax referenda several times in a row because our property taxes here are already sky high and because they've done a lousy job selling it. And then of course there is the recession. But the true force of that hasn't even hit yet. Our county estimates property taxes as an average of two years. This was a system put into place to prevent sharp leaps in tax amounts during the boom years. Next year will be when they reevaluate the levels. If a referendum isn't passed, there will be further income cuts. Our district is looking at closing a school. But that will only save 600,000 -- a fraction of what is needed. And where will all those students go? Our classrooms are already filled to bursting. If they don't balance the budget by 2010-11, the state will take over. And who knows what will happen then. But given the budgeting precedent, if gifted programs make it that far, I'm pretty sure they'll be gone when the state gets involved. The state, after all, has set a precedent.

Complicating the issue is the $800,000 of stimulus money the district has received. You'd think that would help the situation a lot, wouldn't you? But it doesn't. The stimulus money cannot be spent on deficit spending, nor can it be applied to capital "improvements' -- including the much needed new roofs for two of the schools. It can be spent on upgrading technology, which is also needed. But how will the school's pay for maintenance and training on new machines if they are running a severe deficit?

In the face of such dire financial circumstances, is lobbying for gifted education programs the right thing to do? Of course. Why? Because the programs are not about enrichment. They are about giving children the work appropriate for them, in just the same way that special education provides appropriate work for children on the other end of the learning spectrum. But in the era of No Child Left Behind, schools do not always see it that way. Gifted children can meet -- and exceed -- the standards that they are asked to meet. Why spend extra time and money catering to them? Because their parents pay taxes too and they can and should expect to have the needs of their children met by an institution they are forced to attend. Realistic? Perhaps not. But fair policy? Definitely.

Now is a crucial time to lobby for gifted education, in Illinois and elsewhere. Schools need to hear what the stakes are. They need to hear about what matters. In the end, all children suffer when schools make policies that exclude some of them.

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