In the next two weeks, the D. C. Council will undertake the task of fulfilling conflicting campaign promises, choosing among competing demands and adopting a spending plan for our tax dollars for fiscal year 1984. As in the recent past, the amount that will be provided for the public schools is one of the items in controversy. Superintendent Floretta McKenzie and a unanimous board of education are seeking $336.4 million; Mayor Marion Barry is proposing $318.5 million.
The mayor's justification is, "You can do everything you want to do on the reduced amount of money I propose to give you." He should be able to back up his assertion.
The facts are that the school system's request is a genuine break-even, no-growth budget, including cuts to reflect declining enrollment. An independent analysis by Parents United for Full Public School Funding, a group of D.C. parents who follow the school budget process, came up with a slightly higher figure--$336.7 million--simply to duplicate this school year's services for the next fiscal year, with allowances for declining enrollment and school closings. Parents United calculates that if the mayor's amount were approved, 450 teachers would have to be RIFed, even if proportional cuts were made in other areas of the school budget, such as central and local school administration, supplies, repairs and custodians. Average class size would rise to almost 30.
During his reelection campaign, Barry promised that he would support a school budget increase that would provide "no cutbacks in the number of classroom teachers and which would allow some program improvements and expansions." In meetings then with school board representatives, his senior staff conceded that about $333 million would be necessary to fulfill the "no cutbacks" pledge. It thus came as somewhat of a surprise when the new budget director, Betsy Reveal, came before the council and stated: "The mayor firmly believes that the performance of our public schools can be maintained at the budgetary levels he has proposed. . . ."
But the director failed to explain how this laudable aim could be fulfilled. Her only definite statement was that, through savings from projected enrollment declines and non- recurring equipment purchases, the current appropriation of $306.5 million could be reduced to $300.3 million as a base from which to calculate increases.
This is a classic half-truth, since Reveal was silent on the question of inescapable increases: about $20 million in cost-of- living and in-grade pay increases, together with related benefit costs; more than $4 million in inflation for everything other than personnel; more than $7 million to pick up the cost of fiscal 1983 pay increases and related benefits to match increases given to other city employees, and more than $5 million to pick up programs--especially for the disadvantaged and handicapped--previously financed with federal aid.
Since the devastating cuts and teacher firings of 1980, our schools have made progress. Classroom resources lost then are being restored. Test scores continue to rise. The third-graders' level now equals the national norm. Renewed confidence in our school was shown in this fall's unexpected 6 percent increase in kindergarten enrollment. Teachers agreed in their last contract to work longer hours and additional days. Needed new investments have begun in career and vocational education and in computer literacy. An exciting set of partnerships with the business community is under way. This year has brought one basic skills teacher to each high school and a few hours per week of an aide's time for each classroom teacher.
There is, of course, a policy issue about whether to grant the schools a break-even budget when increases for some other city agencies do not keep pace with inflation and pay increases. Parents United believes not only that maintaining current programs is essential, but also that several million dollars more, over and above the $336 million request, is needed to provide additional remedial teaching in basic skills, improve teacher evaluation, serve handicapped students and provide "alternative" schools for teen-agers who cannot function in the "ordinary" high school.
There are no mirrors, no top hats with rabbits inside that the schools can produce to turn the mayor's unsupported assertions into reality. The sooner this is conceded, the healthier that debate will be.