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Commentary: Where I would spend the ‘Local Control’ money

Ellie Herman | March 5, 2014

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imagesWant to play the least fun game in the world?

It’s called “Principal for a Day.” I know, back when you were five, it used to sound so fun to follow the principal around, issuing commands—Extra recess for everyone! Free donuts in the cafeteria!—but thanks to years of budget cuts, the game is no longer any fun, unless you really love crying over a pile of spreadsheets.

After the passage of Prop 30, though, some people are saying the game might regain its original luster. With the Local Control Funding Formula channeling fresh funds into the district budget, maybe we won’t have to stock up on Kleenex as we plan how to keep our doors open next year.

So let’s pretend we’re the principal of All-American High, an imaginary but typical school of about 550 students—a “small learning community” formed by dividing up a large public high school in south Los Angeles. Let’s say 95 percent of our students qualify for free and reduced lunch, 65 percent are English Language Learners, 15 percent are in Special Ed and 10 percent are in foster care. The school is in a high-crime area with significant gang activity. Many of our families are seeing food stamps cut this year, which means kids sometimes come to school hungry.

Whew! It’s exhausting being a principal. But now comes the fun part.

We’re going to get a significant influx of money for 2014-15—we hear a different report every week, ranging from about $500 more per student to about $1,500. Under LCFF, we’ll be getting additional funds because we’re a high-poverty community. What this means in terms of actual money we can use is still unclear, a moving target nobody seems to fully understand.

What it sounds like is that we may be able to hire three to five people to replace some of the staff we laid off over the last few years. Here are the layoffs we’ll be trying to replace: one of our Assistant Principals, one of our two counselors, all but one of our security guards, our nurse and our librarian. We’ve also had to lay off a large number of our newer teachers, leaving the remaining teachers with enormous classes.

So whom do we bring back? I’m going to say—with pain, because it hurts to make impossible choices—that the first thing I’d fund is teachers.

First, I want to give our teachers a raise. We’ll never bring talented people into the profession if we don’t pay a decent wage. I know teachers who have two children and live in one-bedroom apartments in high-crime neighborhoods. That’s not a lifestyle that will attract anyone into the job. Last year a third of our teachers quit. Four of them did so in the middle of the school year, leaving their classes covered by a rotating fleet of substitutes. Our remaining teachers have not had a raise in five years. Our first priority needs to be attracting and retaining excellent teachers, the core of our school.

Second of all, I’m going to lower class size as much as possible. With students coming in far below grade level, teachers need time for individual attention, especially now with Common Core as we try to teach abstract analytical thinking, which will require the close reading of our students’ work. I’d add a teacher in every core subject.

That’s four; we’re almost out of money already. Now is when things get ugly.

Since we cut our second Assistant Principal, we have no school-wide discipline plan. We’ve also been hemorrhaging students ever since we cut summer school, which left students unable to take a class over if they flunked. I’d love a parent coordinator from the community to reach out to families. But if we can only fund one more person, I’d hire a second counselor. Many of our students are growing up in chaotic situations that leave them in an emotional state close to PTSD. Others have no idea what classes they need to take in order to graduate. More than anything, our kids need someone to talk to.

And then I’m out of money.

As a former drama teacher, it kills me to say that we can’t afford to add an arts class. I desperately want to send our teachers for training in the new Common Core standards. I’d love to have after-school intervention classes for the 30 percent of our students who are still far below grade level. I’d love to train our staff in the promising new Restorative Justice circle method of group talk therapy with students who have behavior issues. We also need an industrial-strength photocopier, healthy food in the cafeteria and school-wide wifi access.

But all of that will have to wait.

It’s better than last year, but we’re still not even back to 2008 levels of funding. Prop 30 saved us from a total meltdown, and it’s definitely a step in the right direction to give high-poverty communities additional funding. But let’s be honest: it’s still a baby step. Now that we’ve opened the door, now that we’ve admitted that we need to fund schools adequately, let’s look at what it will really take to make our schools great, instead of getting them to survive. Let’s talk honestly about what our students really need, then find funding to meet those needs.

Then, and only then, the game of education will be fair for everyone.

Ellie Herman is a guest commentator. Read more of her thoughts at Gatsby in LA.


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