Note: If other CPS parents and members of the Cambridge community would like to post budget comments to this blogsite, please contact me via the contact information on the “About” page of this blogsite.)
Budget Commentary, Emily Dexter, CPS Budget Hearing, October 21, 2014 (Revised slightly.)
Thank you very much for holding this hearing so early in the process and for being interested in what parents and other members of the community have to say about the budget. I know that all of us—members of the CPS administration, faculty, and staff; elected officials; parents; and other members of the Cambridge community—share the same commitment: We want all of our students to be successful, and we want all of them to learn to read fluently by the end of third grade so they have equal opportunity to learn in the upper grades.
When we think about focusing our budget resources on improving student learning, however, we face a dilemma. As Mr. Fantini pointed out in the recent school committee roundtable about the DESE District Review Report*, under our current budget-development process, by the time the budget comes to the school committee and the public, roughly 97% or more is already spent. Each year we have very few discretionary dollars with which to try new ways to improve student learning and achievement.
It is as if we are trying to renovate our house but we are given only two tools—a hammer and a screwdriver. Because with those few discretionary dollars, there are only two main tools we can use: 1) professional development, which is always on the budget agenda, and 2) adding yet another administrative position, both of which are cheaper than adding 12 more reading specialists. We are not allowed to use a chisel, a saw, a paintbrush, a ladder, or any other tools to renovate our house. There are many other tools, however, that research has shown to be effective at increasing student achievement, including: comprehensive summer school programming, smaller class sizes, double-staffing classes, hiring more reading specialists, providing intensive tutoring, having social workers in the schools, and so on.
Two years ago, as a community, we considered lengthening the school day by one hour. (Which we didn’t do.) As I understand it, this would have cost roughly $4.0 million dollars, and the city manager promised to provide that additional money. (I.e. we would not have to make budget cuts to pay for the additional staff time.) If we didn’t lengthen the school day, however, the city would not give the schools that additional $4.0 million dollars. What does that mean though? It means that the city manager, effectively, is determining educational policy for the city: You can have $4.0 million dollars, but only if it is spent in this particular way. That’s not, however, the way the city is supposed to work. The school committee and the public is supposed to determine educational policy and how best to spend our public school dollars. And in fact, there is not conclusive research showing that lengthening the school day increases achievement. We have a lot of other tools at our disposal to do that other than lengthening the school day.
Obviously, the city manager wants what is best for our students. This is not at all an issue of anyone’s intention. But if the city can afford to give the schools an additional $4.0 million dollars, it should be the school committee, representing the larger public, who determines how those additional dollars are best spent.
Thank you for your consideration, and for the hard work I know all of you will put into developing the FY16 budget.
* DESE is the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (aka the state’s Department of Education.) In 2013-2014, DESE conducted a review of CPS schools. The DESE report and related materials are posted on the CPS website under “Regular Meeting, September 16” and “Roundtable, September 30”: http://www.cpsd.us/school_committee/school_committee_meetings