Students at Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School in Queens. (Photo courtesy of Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School)

There are people who will tell you — and offer research as support — that there really isn’t any link between the amount of money spent on public education and student achievement.

They won’t mention that there is research that shows otherwise, such as a 2016 study showing that states that did provide more money to low-performing schools got better results — but never mind.

And they won’t mention successful lawsuits in recent years in several states that have argued that lawmakers are not providing enough money to meet state mandates and provide a quality education for all students.

And, apparently, people who don’t believe in a link between funding and student achievement won’t listen to teachers on the ground who can tell them otherwise.

In this post, that’s just what teachers at a public school in New York City do. They detail what it looks and feels like to be an educator at a school that is underfunded. What don’t students get? Which compromises do teachers have to make?

This was written and signed by the faculty of Q167, the showcase Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School in Queens.

 

By the Faculty of Q167, the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School

We teach at a public school in New York City that, faced with budget cuts almost every year since our founding in 2010, is in deep financial pain.

We want to share with you what inadequate funding looks like, and feels like, in one school. We do this in support of the recent Education Advocacy Day rally in Albany demanding that elected officials pay the billions of dollars owed to chronically underfunded schools from a 2007 court settlement, and in recognition of ongoing litigation for adequate school funding in New York’s highest court and courts across the nation,

We believe our school, the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School in Queens, stands as a model for the state’s constitutional guarantee of a “sound, basic education” that prepares students to “function productively as civic participants and compete for jobs that enable them to support themselves.”

We graduated every single member of our senior class in 2016, and are one of only two “unscreened” schools in the city to hit a 100 percent graduation rate in the past decade. We have been recognized by the city for a culture where students feel like they belong in the school’s academic community, something we believe is foundational to the state’s guarantee of a basic education. We have also done so while eschewing test-prep approaches and focusing on real-world curriculum for civic participation — all while 70 percent of our students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch (a standard measure of poverty).

We believe all students ought to be guaranteed such an education. Yet each year, nothing threatens our vision for such a school more than the repeated reductions to our budget.

Since 2010, the amount of per-pupil funding in New York City schools has been cut four times, even as operating costs have continued to increase. In the few years where funding has been stable, we have been “punished” for an average staff retention rate around 95 percent (schools are perversely incentivized to hire new and inexperienced teachers).

We are haunted by this unceasing truth: taking into account rising operating costs, we have always struggled with less money per pupil than the year before. And that’s not even adjusting for inflation, so the financial picture is even bleaker than it might first appear.

With public funds in this political climate increasingly cut or diverted from public schools to private education, we suspect this is the case for many public schools across the country.

On founding this school in 2010, we created a school with smaller classes. We built a place where the hiring of additional staff members would give teachers extra time to create complex, relevant projects that connect students with the world rather than assign pages from textbooks.

We established a practice of engaging students in regular fieldwork in our communities: our ninth-graders, for example, have been working at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge to test salinity and design solutions for managing our local ecosystem; our seniors are investigating land use in the Rockaways and speaking with local policymakers about efforts to make the neighborhood more resilient to climate change. We paid staff to work longer hours to plan curriculum collaboratively and offer a wide collection of after-school clubs and activities, knowing how important they are to providing social and academic support, not to mention a sense of school as community.

Some of our funds from our first year were cut quickly: Congress did not renew federal Title 1 funds following the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, and our classes have grown to 33 and 34 students — the city’s maximum. As our budget continues to be cut, sometimes upward of $100,000 each year, we have not hired more teachers to accommodate a growing student population.

“Every year, as our class sizes grow, it gets harder to give students the meaningful feedback that they need throughout the writing process,” notes one sixth-grade English teacher. “If I only spend five minutes per paper for each of my 100 students, that’s eight hours on one round of feedback. Now, repeat that for revising and editing.”

When we appealed this year’s budget cuts, the city audited our budget and told us that we had a dozen more teachers than we needed. We were dumbfounded: with 34 students per class and 100-120 students per teacher, we have too many teachers?

We have cut the planning time among teachers that permits us to work together and bring our best to classrooms. While we thankfully remain well above the contractual standard of 45-minute-a-day planning periods, we have seen the time diminish steeply some years. Our special-education teachers, who manage a caseload of students with individual needs in addition to providing differentiated instruction in classrooms, have increasingly asked: “How can we adequately serve our neediest students when we already feel like we’re spread too thin?”

This year we can no longer afford to provide free after-school programming, despite our belief that all students deserve access to a rich after-school program.

Since we began charging students to participate in after-school activities, our 30 clubs from last year plummeted to nine. Gone are Model U.N., Jazz Ensemble, Photography Club, Yoga, Outdoor Club, Live Poets Society, Dance Club, Flag Football. Saddened by the change, one eighth-grader innocently asked, “Can’t everyone just keep the school open for free?”

The truth is, many of us are doing just that.

Despite these punishing cutbacks, our teachers and parents have stepped up to volunteer their time to support activities — afraid of the kind of school we’d be without them. Rather than see students drop because of costs, the two coaches of our award-winning Speech and Debate team are going unpaid for the additional 15 hours a week spent coaching. When one ninth-grade student who has struggled in school won her first tournament last month, one of the coaches reaffirmed, “I am there because S. needs that team.”

Similarly, the four teachers who serve as class sponsors for our high school student government are no longer being paid this year to chaperon events planned by student officers. The same goes for the many teachers who now stay late for student dances or movie nights, or student-run fundraisers on weekends. We are reluctant to sacrifice something so important to our students’ sense of ownership in their community.

When we take students on fieldwork, we no longer have a fund to support students who cannot afford it, whether it’s the cost of transit, equipment or museum admission. Our families who are in a position to contribute extra money to sponsor additional students have done so generously, knowing how vital it is to provide these experiences for all our diverse students.

This year, we face perhaps our most daunting task as a staff: raising $40,000 to fund four days of fieldwork into the backcountry upstate for our incoming sixth-graders. This work is central to the environmental sustainability theme and community-building of our school, and we are committed to raising the money because all of us have seen our students return from the trip transformed. The peers of a student with cerebral palsy changed when they saw him traverse the ropes course and learned that his strengths were not bounded by the disease. One student told us, upon her return last year, that this trip was the first time she “truly felt alive.”

So far we hold some semblance of a line: we continue to design real-world curriculums, continue to take students on fieldwork, continue to run an after-school program and class events — even as we recognize where our initial visions have been eroded, and how dependent we are this year on charity and volunteerism.

This is no way to build a school.

This year’s budget cuts, in particular — and the response to our appeal from the city — felt like a slap in the face, insult to injury, for every year’s concessions to what we wish for our students.

The truth is, none of what we do is possible without consistent staffing and funding, without knowing that next year, as operating costs grow, we will still have money to fund the vision and commitments that have made our school a success. Every year it becomes harder to square what we believe should be a sound, basic education for all children with our financial realities.

We are not writing to make excuses, or to fill our pockets: like most teachers we know, we continue to work extraordinary hours beyond our contractual workday as part of the job. When policymakers slash our budgets, we are the ones who must answer for it, digging ever deeper into our hearts and pockets to prevent the cuts from hurting kids.

We certainly don’t believe that money solves all of the problems that our schools face, but we believe that adequate funding is necessary to build the kinds of educational capacities that have made our students thrive thus far — and that the state constitution of New York guarantees as every student’s right.

If you are moved to join us as we fight for our school, and a bolder vision for our public schools, we first ask that you tune in to the struggles in educational funding in courts and legislatures across the country. We ask you to call your legislators each time President  Trump and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos propose federal education cuts, and each time your state legislators do so, and to join the rallies and protests.

We ask you to be outraged, as we are, that New York schools have been shortchanged for decades, or that New Jersey school districts continue to wait through 21 court orders and counting for elected officials to provide adequate funding. If there is no public outcry, our elected officials find it easier to remain in contempt of court, apparently, than to provide a sound education for our children.

In the wake of debates over the latest federal tax bill passed in December, we also wish to point out that the fate of our schools is tied to our taxes. Our school lost Title 1 funding when school funds tied to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act were not renewed. In New York City, 60 percent or more of a school’s students must come from households whose incomes qualify them for free lunch before the school receives a single cent of additional funds.

The latest tax plan gives families a tax cut to attend private schools, a proposal that caters to our wealthiest families while harming investment in public schools. Likewise, the controversy over the deductibility of state and local taxes (SALT), absent from the original Senate bill, has enormous implications for schools: a 2011 report from the Center on Education Policy estimated that the complete elimination of state and local tax deductions in 2009 would have slashed public school funding by at least $16.5 billion.

Finally, to our colleagues in education and parents on PTAs who are similarly struggling, who are raising funds and volunteering ever more of your time to keep our schools vibrant and alive — we need you to speak up with us. We believe that only when everyone recognizes our public schools are an essential part of our society and dedicates themselves to their future that we can stop the “new normal” of cuts to school funding. We call upon all of our colleagues to invite as many neighbors, families and friends as possible to see and share the work of our schools, and join in our struggles.

On the walls of almost every classroom in our school, visitors can find a quote by Outward Bound founder Kurt Hahn that reads “We are crew, not passengers.” It is a quotation our students know by heart, and one anchored firmly in fieldwork experiences beginning with their sixth-grade trek upstate: we ask them to be a part of our school’s “crew,” and to make decisions every day to build a better school for all of us. We ask the same of you.

Signed by the entire teaching faculty of the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School in Queens:

Candice Abreu, Aisha Ali, Jen Avellino, Sadhya Bailey, Ashley Bartlett, Robin Baumgarten, Tarin Baxter, Jasmine Benzvi, Katie Blouse, Hannah Brenman, Melissa Bright, Barbara Brown, Ajulia Bryan, Christy Dunbar, Gabriela Calderon-Espinal, Milreyly A. Cas, Rachel Demalderis, Christine DiLapi, Sandra Drozd, Bianca Duec, Christine Dunbar, Jillian Ehlers, Ari Feldman, Mica Fidler, Charles Fitzgibbon, Ilana Gutman, Pareese Hankerson, Paco Hanlon, Bill Hendrick, Erica Herzog, Erin Hickey, D. Jyung, Rebecca Kleinbart, Adam King, Lauren Kosasa, Melissa Lotti, Allison Maxfield, Nicole Mendelsohn, Rebecca Migoni, Andreina Nuñez, Evan O’Connell, Seyi Okuneye, Erica Pajerowski, Samantha Paniagua, Leslie Pinto, Shayna Priestley Garrison, Angela Richardson, Leah Roberts, Lucy Robins, Jonathan N. Rosado, Elyse Rosenberg, Hilary Rosenfield, Michael Rosenthal, Matt Satriano, Kimberly Scher, Abigail Sewall, Eric Shieh, Simone Sylvester, Thea Taylor, Kimron Thomas, Kristen Tomanocy, Elissa Vinnik, Shatera Weaver, Brooke Winter-DiGirolamo, Claire Wolff, Jenna-Lyn Zaino and Eli Zaritt.