Education: A Rising Issue in the Upcoming Presidential Election?

By Stacey J. Haseleu

The 2012 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the public’s opinion on education shows that only 35% of those polled believe the biggest problem is “lack of financial support.”  With 26,000 teachers and administrators walking off the job inChicago,IL, the nation’s third largest public school system, it’s hard to believe that the other 65% of those polled do not recognize lack of funding as the biggest issue.

Up until the Chicago strikes, education took a back seat to issues such as the economy, healthcare reform, and the war in the Middle East for the upcoming Presidential election.  The strike comes at a time when educational concerns are rising, especially in states such as Pennsylvania, which experienced drastic funding cuts over the last year.

In May 2012, a survey conducted by the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators and Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials found that during the 2011-2012 school year, education funding was cut by almost $1 billion.  As a result, Pennsylvania school districts eliminated more than 14,000 jobs through furloughs or by attrition, leaving the positions of retiring teachers unfilled and increasing class sizes in 70% of the state’s school districts.

Diane Metz, a 30-year-old teacher at a troubled PA high school says, “I have fellow teachers who lost their jobs. I know fellow teachers who felt “forced” to retire. I have a contract with minimal raises over the next three years because the district cannot afford to pay us even cost of living increases.”

The loss of teachers has resulted in larger class sizes for students.  Metz says, “I have class sizes of 28-29 students because we do not have the means to hire more teachers.”

With the absence of restored state funding for the 2012-2013 school year, class sizes and the number of unemployed teachers is expected to continue to grow.

Nancy Mesko, a 58-year-old optician blames the state government.  She says, “Corbett has taken away much of the funding which eliminated many teachers and cut programs for schools, he also did not apply for the extra funding from the federal government which President Obama offered to the states.  It would have helped keep teachers employed.”

Some local school unions are trying to work around the furloughs imposed by the budget cuts.  Thomas Nickovich, a 35-year-old teacher says, “I was impacted by having to take a pay freeze for two school years and I will not be able to gain back those two lost years of proper pay increases.”

His wife, former teacher Olivia Nickovich, 34, explains, “The threat of furloughs in the school district caused the union to call for a pay freeze. The teachers voted it in to save jobs.”

Amidst the threat of furloughs and pay freezes, teachers must also struggle to ensure their students meet the requirements of nation-wide standardized testing implemented by former President George W. Bush in 2001 through “No Child Left Behind”.  Most teachers admit the stricter standards on testing are improving test scores, but emphasis on testing creates controversy surrounding how children learn and teacher focus.

Kristin Grace, 26, a teacher at a PA charter school says, “I am very against the PSSAs [Pennsylvania System of School Assessment] because I think the tests are ruining the education system. I believe children are being over-tested and we’re starting to leave out all other aspects of learning just to prepare for a test.”

With furloughs, pay freezes, and the stress of getting students to score well on tests, many teachers believe too much emphasis is placed on them and not enough on state and federal governments and the responsibility of parents.

Steve Tomkowitz, a 30-year-old teacher in a troubled PA high school says, “Education as a whole in the state and country needs addressed. Too often I find that teachers are blamed for all the troubles that schools encounter and no blame is placed on societal changes, absentee parenting, and societal values about education.”

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