Budget cuts, falling prestige beset teachers

Robert McCartney
Columnist September 3, 2011

As a new academic year begins, there’s reason to worry that cutting budgets and scapegoating teachers have started to take their toll in the classroom.

Award-winning principals from the area say spending reductions are starting to bite. The principals also have to work extra hard to shore up staff morale at a time when teachers seem to be getting more than their fair share of blame from the public for the nation’s problems.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

Principal Maureen Marshall of Garfield Elementary School in Fairfax County, where students start classes Tuesday, is an example. Marshall said she was “very concerned” that the end of two years of federal stimulus money will lead to a loss of summer programs to help slower students and orient incoming kindergartners.

“This is the first year that I’m probably feeling the budget cuts, because the [federal] money dried up,” Marshall said. The pinch is also affecting instructional assistants, professional development and field trips.

“It just seems like we had more money for everything” in the past, Marshall said.

In addition, the national push for education reform has made teachers feel defensive and less respected. Principals point to the effect of the documentary “Waiting for Superman,” which sharply criticizes U.S. public education and puts much of the responsibility on poor teachers and unions.

The message that teachers get is, “You’ve let us down. Look where we are in the world right now, and it’s your fault,” said a Maryland principal who asked not to be identified because the issue is politically sensitive.

I heard about these anxieties from principals whom I met in July in Florida on the annual trip honoring winners of The Washington Post’s Distinguished Educational Leadership Awards. For the fifth time in six years, I had the privilege of joining awardees on a working vacation – half seminar, half holiday — at a luxury resort.

Speaking in interviews in July and last week, the principals provided a sobering portrait of school systems laboring to maintain quality in a negative environment. The mood has worsened noticeably from the same event two years ago. At that time, I heard more venting about routine problems, including over-involved parents and micromanaging administrators.

I’m not suggesting there’s a crisis — yet. Overall, our region provides some of the finest, highest-achieving schools in the country.

Still, everybody agrees that improving education is the key to restoring the nation’s long-term economic health and international competitiveness. It’s not fair or realistic to ask educators to achieve that when we’re steadily taking away their resources.

Almost every principal I interviewed said that spending cuts had led to deterioration in the classroom or was going to do so this year.

“We have some really talented teachers who are losing their jobs based on budget cuts and are going to other districts. It’s really a loss for our students,” said Judith White, who was recently promoted from principal to an area instructional director in Prince George’s County.

Principal Judy Brubaker of Matsunaga Elementary School in Montgomery County said she has suffered from reductions in reading, counseling, library, paraeducation and other services.

“I’m really affected by the budget crisis,” Brubaker said. “This time it’s really real. You can see the effect in the classroom.”

Money troubles often mean teachers have received only small raises, or none at all, for several years. That combines with the negative public portrayals of educators to hurt morale.

“Teaching is the most rewarding profession, but in our society, teachers don’t feel the respect they once had,” White said.

As a result, several principals have stepped up efforts to show appreciation.

“You can praise what they do in the classroom, you can jot them notes and put them in mailboxes, you can get business partners to host a lunch for them,” Marshall said. “That goes a long way, particularly in times like these, when raises are small and movies come out that maybe don’t look at educators in a flattering light.”

In a creative twist, Principal Sharon Stratton of Arundel High School in Anne Arundel County uses the nation’s fallen educational standing as a motivating tool.

“Our country is not performing at the No. 1 level anymore. I try to tap their moral responsibility for helping young people go on to have skills needed to fill jobs,” Stratton said.

Do teachers respond? She said yes: “Whether it’s patriotism or they all want their Social Security when they retire, I’m not sure.”

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