What Are We Doing to Our Kids?

If Train No. 1 brings $2 billion to schools around the state to help them hire more teachers, shrink class sizes, and expand curricula, and 10 years later Train No. 2 takes the money back, leading to teacher layoffs, bigger classes, and fewer courses, who suffers the most?
A: The kids
B: The kids
C: The kids
D: All of the above

They look like oversized dolls sitting in the tiny brown plastic chairs, their knees up around their chests, their arms dangling almost to the floor. On the wall is a spelling list. “Hit. Kit. Slit. Split.” Scribbled on the chalkboard are the letters of the alphabet. A few hours earlier, this classroom was buzzing with first graders under the care of Karen Harvey, the assistant principal at Kittredge Elementary School in North Andover. But now it's 6 p.m., the kids are long gone, and Harvey, her principal, Joan Desmond, and nine hip, educated suburban moms are sitting in their places, their notebooks open, their wedding and toe rings glistening, their pens scribbling furiously. Now they're the students. And today's lesson is about budgeting.

“We're still waiting on the money from the fun run,” says Jodie Leibowitz, the co-president of the Kittredge School Parent Teacher Organization. “We're expecting $1,500.”

“The two book fairs, that should be $1,700,” pipes up another voice.

“Parents are saving the Betty Crocker box tops,” says a third, a reference to a program that gives schools ten cents for every box top collected. “That should be $200.”

So it goes, into the night. This is what it's come to for today's parents of public school children, even in one of Boston's most affluent suburbs: baking brownies so they can clip off the box top and send it in to school with their child, who will hand it to a teacher, who will pass it on to an administrator, who will make certain that it gets exchanged — for a dime.

At a time when Bay State students are rewarding their teachers by outshining their classroom counterparts from around the country in test scores and reading and writing skills, the state is rewarding them right back by giving their schools less money — $231 million less this year, to be precise — for the first time since 1993. That was when the Education Reform Act began pumping billions of dollars into Massachusetts schools — a move the education commissioner at the time vowed would “restructure how students learn.” It seemed be working, too. And now?

Those teachers hired with that new money? Dismissed. The media specialists trained to help students research papers on computers? Gone. The extra nurses hired to deal with a growing number of students taking Ritalin or suffering from allergies or asthma? Fired. The program that provided tutoring to students who fail the state MCAS test — now required for graduation — on their first try? Eliminated. Manageable classes that were able to shrink below 20 students? Poof. The music and arts programs that opened a window for children into a world of culture they might never have seen or heard? Erased.

It is, in essence, the perfect storm of education. New federal requirements under the No Child Left Behind Act are kicking in at the same time as new state mandates under the Education Reform Act. But after years of swimming in a river of grant money and surpluses, school districts (with a few exceptions in towns that set aside a rainy-day fund for just this eventuality) are seeing their budgets dry up at the absolute worst time.
In one of the more drastic resulting cuts, Quabbin Regional High School in the central Massachusetts town of Barre will squeeze the mandated 990 teaching hours this year into 175 days instead of 180, saving roughly $100,000 in busing and school lunch costs. Small measures like that, however, won't suffice in many towns facing million-dollar shortfalls, which is why some have taken the most extreme measure of all: closing schools. Six Boston public schools are closing, and about 1,000 employees have lost their jobs in the largest downsizing of public schools in the state in two decades. Juniper Hill Elementary School in Framingham, Eldridge Kindergarten Center in Braintree, and Fulton School in Weymouth have also been shut down.

As if these cuts aren't painful enough, students or their parents are being forced to pay for many of the things that are left. A parking space at school? That'll be $25 for the year. You want to ride the bus instead? That's $200. Sticking around after the final bell to play soccer? Five hundred dollars, please.

Welcome to 21st-century public school education, where your taxes will cover everything that goes on inside a school while classes are in session — but anything outside those walls, or after the final bell, will cost you extra. It's as if the line that once divided public and private schools as clearly as 2+2=4 is suddenly as fuzzy as Billy Bulger's memory.

Playing sports at Oakmont Regional High costs more than at any other high school in the state, and maybe the country; last year it was $550 for the first sport, $300 for each additional sport. At Masconomet Regional High, students have to pay $250 to join the science team.

It's a rainy day outside Rockland High School and John W. Rogers Middle School. The parking lot is packed. Parents are waiting in their cars for students to pile out the doors. A bell sounds and the crush begins. Only a few weeks earlier, the Rockland School Committee passed new athletics fees, raising them from $50 per student per sport to $165 for the year. Sitting in her minivan, Lynne Spear, whose daughter plays basketball, says she's resigned herself to the fees. “The athletic directors put in 110 percent,” she says. “It's a great basketball program.” Spear has collected her 10th grader, Tristen, and is awaiting her 6th grader. Leaning out of the window, Tristen echoes her mother's praise, but adds that the fees hurt some of her classmates. “Some kids have to pay it themselves,” she says. “It's hard.”

It's the ones who can't pay that worry Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. “Kids will be embarrassed,” he says. “High school students are far more reluctant to sign up for free and discount lunches because they don't want to be associated with the stigma. No one wants to be labeled as a low-income kid.”

At Framingham High, for instance, a student who rides the bus to school most days, but occasionally drives on days his sports team practices after class, will now have to pay a $180 bus fee for the year, a $100 fee for each sport played, and up to $100 a year in parking fees. “It's reasonable because of the cuts in state aid,” says 16-year-old junior Alek Sudan. “I found the bus fee awkward this year, but it's only a dollar a day.”

In Natick students pay $125 per sport. In Brookline it's $125 per sport for high school students, and even middle schoolers have to pony up $85.

It didn't used to be this way in public schools. Sports used to be free, like writing for the school paper, shooting pictures for the yearbook, acting out the role of Hamlet in the school play — activities that inspired teamwork and built leadership skills. But as schools have lost local and education aid and grown desperate for new revenue to avoid having to lay off teachers, imposing fees on students to pay for bus rides, referees, and uniforms is becoming the norm. Some students have started taking measures into their own hands to fight back. With a goal of $15,000 by June, students at Nauset Regional High School are holding fundraisers — a lip-synching contest, for example — to avoid having to pay fees. Their efforts may only stall the inevitable. The Massachusetts Association of School Committees estimates that 100 districts statewide are already charging fees for particular sports, from as little as $15 to as much as $1,000, and it expects that number to only climb in the coming years.

It costs $175 to participate in sports at Arlington High School or play a musical instrument at one of the town's elementary schools.

Topping the list is the Ashburnham-Westminster Regional School District — with fees that can rise as high as $1,000 — resulting in a drastic drop in participation, to the point where some teams have been eliminated because not enough kids were signing up. A three-sport athlete at the district's high school, Oakmont Regional, just south of the New Hampshire line, could pay $1,700 this year. “This is a public school, and having a fee to play a sport is like running a private school in a public building,” says David Uminski, a history teacher at Oakmont Regional who coached field hockey there for 15 years before growing frustrated with the fees and giving it up. “We knew of kids who were not playing because of the fee. That's just wrong.”

And if they can't play a sport, they might not be able to join a club or play an instrument, either, if that costs extra, too. “The impact of that is something you might not notice until the course of your life starts to play out,” Koocher says.

High fees are less of a worry in affluent communities, but in places like Brockton, the possibility that kids might avoid after-school activities and head straight for the streets after the final bell troubles administrators, who know all too well that juvenile crime rates are highest between 3 and 6 p.m. (Boston and Cambridge public schools have so far avoided fees for extracurricular activities.)

How rough is it? The school buses look different this fall in Beverly now that companies can buy advertising space on them — a move the district hopes will raise $70,000 and pay for classroom supplies to help offset a $1.6 million shortfall.

In Framingham students are being charged $180 just to ride the school bus; it's $225 in Lexington, $235 in Andover, and $313 in Needham.

Almost a third of the 290 Massachusetts school districts are charging bus fees, from a low of $50 per child in Rockport to as much as $325 per student in Belmont. Just in the last three years, Barnstable, Belchertown, Natick, North-ampton, Carlisle, Haverhill, Saugus, and Stoughton all imposed bus fees.

“Fees are a regrettable necessity of surviving,” Koocher says. “Districts find with all the pressure to swallow inflation, absorb the cuts in state aid, and deal with the reluctance of taxpayers to use taxes, there are no alternatives for revenue.”

Well, actually, there is an alternative: tax overrides. But even more affluent towns, which have typically passed overrides in recent years, haven't bothered trying, knowing they don't stand a chance of passing. Statewide, 77 communities held at least one override vote this year; 42 failed, according to the Massachusetts Municipal Association. “Rockland has a lot of elderly people, and they don't want to pay for school-age kids,” Lynne Spear says. In Scituate, a sparkling new $11.3 million elementary school sat empty for an entire school year after residents rejected a tax override that would have helped pay to staff it.

A few school districts are faring better. Even though a state report in May noted that a number of towns have been depleting their emergency reserves, some districts have nonetheless tapped into rainy-day funds to avoid severe teacher layoffs and other cuts in education. Tewksbury had $1.6 million left over from last year, which it used to balance its books for this year. Even Newton, still smarting after a contentious $11.5 million override vote last year, siphoned money from its rainy-day fund to keep at least one nurse in every school.

Still, despite its reputation as Taxachusetts, this state seems to have a communal reluctance to raise taxes to pay for schools. Between 1979 and 2000, education spending as a percentage of income in Massachusetts dropped from 19 percent above the national average to 16 percent below it.

Some parents see little choice but to pay more for their kids' extracurriculars. When Jimmy Swerling, a parent of two in Newton, got a letter over the summer reminding him it will cost $125 for his ninth-grade son, Adam, to play football, he just wrote the check. “I didn't even bat an eye,” Swerling says. “They're always screaming they need more money.”

Statewide, at least 3,000 teachers lost their jobs this year, though some were rehired just as classes got under way; at Kittredge Elementary in North Andover, students lost their fifth-grade music program, and they'll have their librarian only one day a week as she splits her time between two schools.

They used to be called librarians, but in the computer age they've become trained to help students research in all the various forms of media — and, as the ones in some towns are discovering, they're also considered expendable. “We're considered a luxury,” says Melissa Sinclair, the media specialist in Boxborough. “People think you can bring in parent volunteers to check out books and that's all that's needed. The problem is, then kids aren't taught how to tackle a problem, how to look up a question. That's what we teach.”

Stephanie Stein teaches English at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School, and she loves knowing she can push her kids without worrying they'll resist. Her high school is one of the area's most competitive, filled with students who thrive on being pushed, who average 1190 out of a possible 1600 on the SAT and 250 out of a possible 254 on the 10th-grade MCAS test, and who multitask better than most adults. But as this school year began, enrollment at Lincoln-Sudbury was up, the classrooms were packed like never before, and Stein found herself worried for the first time in years.

“In the past we've had 25 kids in English classes,” she says. “This year I have 30. It's a lot of kids. We don't have the space for them. It's tough for any kid with a processing problem because things can't be explained as directly as you'd like. You can't teach to 30 kids at the same time.”

Freshman classes, in particular, she says, get tougher as they grow bigger. It's easy for kids to get lost in the shuffle, and it won't take the savvy ones long to realize they don't have to read every assignment because chances are slim they'll be called on. “Freshman classes used to be 18 to 20; now they're 22,” Stein adds. “That's the most I've ever had. That class is intensive writing. You're not going to want to assign as many intensive papers because you won't have time to grade them quickly.”

Gerry Ruane, president of the Malden Education Association, says his school had minimal layoffs, but they included librarians and music and art teachers. A social studies teacher himself, Ruane says it's hard to give his students the individual attention they need. “I keep them in groups,” he says. “I have regular ed students mixed with special ed students and limited-English-language students, all in one room.”

John Brucato, the principal at Milford High School, had seven teachers retire last year, and he was unable to refill four of those jobs, including technology and media specialist positions. To avoid making his classrooms any more crowded, Brucato has his department heads teaching more, leaving them no time to supervise the younger teachers.

Boston closed six schools and laid off about 1,000 employees. The average class size was expected to surpass 25 students in Wellesley, and increase in Cambridge from 17 to 20. In North Andover 17 teachers lost their jobs. Framingham let go of eight school nurses.

Particularly hard hit have been school nurses. About 40 percent of state funding for nursing programs was cut this year, resulting in about 500 nurses being laid off. (Some were rehired.)

There could not be a worse time for schools to be short-staffed in nursing. Not only do schools rely on nurses to spot suspected child abuse (nurses report thousands of such cases each year to the Department of Social Services); there has also been a surge in the number of students diagnosed with psychiatric disorders and diabetes, not to mention life-threatening allergies. From 1996 to 2002, the number of prescriptions for epinephrine nearly doubled, from 4.4 prescriptions per 1,000 students to 8.3. Also, students with chronic health conditions demand constant attention and the professional administration of complex medications.

“If the kid doesn't take his medication on time,” says Andrew Linebaugh, spokesman for the Massachusetts Teachers Association, “he's distracted. That can disrupt the rest of the class.”

Milford cut 17 teachers. Somerville laid off 13 of 18 elementary school reading specialists. Springfield school officials sent pink slips to 185 employees and eliminated the hot breakfast program.

An easy place for schools to save is maintenance, from replacing furniture to painting walls to carpeting floors. With 17 districts being denied state money to fix leaky roofs, breaking boilers, and overcrowded classrooms, students can expect to be learning in tired, rundown, packed-to-the-gills buildings for the foreseeable future.

But the toughest places for officials to cut have been in the arts and music programs and libraries. “The saddest decisions are made when districts eliminate the arts,” says Kathie Skinner, a former assistant principal at Gloucester High and now director of the Center for Educational Quality and Professional Development for the Massachusetts Teachers Association. “They never think of eliminating sports. They charge for sports. Not enough people understand that the arts play just as important a role.”

As bad as it's been, however, officials in Massachusetts recall tougher times back in the early 1980s. “This is the fourth cycle I have experienced in 30 years,” Koocher says. “This, too, shall pass, and we shall rebound.”

If that rebound doesn't come quickly, at least one superintendent wonders how long his district can hang on. “Schools can never be totally immune to the vagaries of the economy,” says Shrewsbury's Anthony Bent. “We can't have a situation where town hall is laying off police and firemen and the schools are not affected. Having said that, we can make it through a year or two with tight budgets. But if this is a five-year phenomenon, then in serious ways we'll begin to lose the ground we've gained.”