When people ask me what it’s like to be on the Cambridge School Committee, I reply, “The School Committee is a group of seven people trying to agree on how to spend 183 million dollars. It gets intense.” The budget is the most important policy document of the year, and our biggest responsibility.
The fact that School Committee members don’t kill each other every budget season is a testament to the human capacity for restraint. This year’s budget process, in fact, was pretty civil; we came to a unanimous YES vote. Last year, when Jeff Young was still superintendent, two of us voted PRESENT rather than YES, indicating our dissatisfaction with the budget that his administration produced.
Below is a version of the comments I made before this year’s vote, including my reasons for voting YES and the concerns I had. A video of the discussion can be seen at Budget Discussion & Vote, 4/4/2017. Superintendent Salim, Mayor Simmons, and all SC members made comments. My own comments run ~1:01-1:07 on the tape.
Below: Superintendent Kenny Salim, Mayor Denise Simmons, and School Committee members: Richard Harding, Kathleen Kelly, Emily Dexter, Patty Nolan, Manikka Bowman, Fred Fantini.
My comments: First, I’d like to thank City Manager Louie DePasquale and former City Manager Rich Rossi. In the 2000s, CPS was getting budget increases from the City of only 1, 2, or 3 percent. In 2015, however, the CPS increase was 4.6 percent, in 2016 it was 5.4 percent, and this year it’s 5.9 percent. That shows that the City administration and City Council understand the challenge of providing equitable learning opportunities in a city with one of the widest income gaps in the country. Cambridge’s GINI index of .54 ranks us as the 11th most unequal city in the U.S. Our income gap is only slightly smaller than than the gap in Rio de Janeiro.
I’m voting YES on this budget for two reasons. One is that there are several things I like; the other, more important reason, is that this is Superintendent Salim’s first budget. The positives include funding for: 1) a long-awaited start of an elementary world language program, 2) additional paraprofessionals for our largest 1st grade classes, 3) a comprehensive review next year of our elementary programs, 4) full-time art teachers in schools that have had to share art teachers, and 5) an additional guidance counselor at CRLS. I’m particularly pleased about the addition of 1st grade paraprofessionals because it’s an acknowledgement that some of our early grade classrooms are too large.
What I don’t see in this budget, but hope to see next year, is a focused strategy for closing the income-related opportunity gaps that result in academic ability gaps. On state standardized tests, we are still seeing 20, 30, even 40 percentage point proficiency and advanced learning gaps, which, across the country, are associated with income inequality.
Every year we increase what we spend on upper grade remediation–after school tutors, summer school, etc., but we don’t substantially increase resources in our early grade classrooms, where we have the most potential to influence children’s learning trajectories. Our class size “target” for 1st-2nd grade is 22 students, which most experts say is too large. Even with that target, one-fourth of all 1st graders this year–120 children–are in classes of 23-25 children with only one full-time teacher. You would never see that at Shady Hill! In terms of support for struggling readers, some of our elementary schools are assigned only one reading specialist but have 70-80 students reading below grade level. Former Cambridge Mayor and City Councilor Ken Reeves once suggested to me that we might need twelve reading specialists in every school. (See my blog post, Talking with Ken Reeves about Reading.) Trying that in two of our elementary schools, that would be a bold experiment!
Every year we try something new and inexpensive, hoping to get different results without spending more. We keep thinking that if we add something flashy—Chromebooks, a new science curriculum, a design lab, professional development from an expensive consultant, the Common Core standards–we’re going to close the income-based achievement gaps that are seen in every diverse district. We love innovation in Cambridge, but we don’t focus enough on the basics—making sure all students get to school every day, keeping high school students off their cell phones during class, having enough trained adults in the classroom, having small enough class sizes for students to get the attention and close relationships with teachers they need to thrive in school, and conducting well-planned research and evaluation to ensure that our resources are distributed effectively and equitably across students. It’s as if we have a house built on sand that is being eroded by the waves–more students, greater need, but instead of strengthening the foundation, we decorate the house. We love our diversity, but we staff our schools as if they were suburban schools serving advantaged students whose parents all have advanced degrees and stable incomes.
What I sense in this budget is too little commitment to the central mission of our schools–classroom teaching and learning. We say we’re going to try to provide more co-teaching in the upper schools, but we aren’t increasing the number of special educators. We say we’re going to try to have 9th grade English class sizes of 18 or fewer for the first year of the Leveling Up initiative, but are only hiring one additional English teacher, practically guaranteeing that many of those classes will have more than 18 students; i.e. will be larger than the maximum class size desired by the school’s principal!
We’re always trying to improve learning conditions for our students but at the lowest cost possible. That’s not a recipe for success. Increasing the instructional attention students receive by increasing the number of teachers and other educators in our schools would be expensive–we’d have to make substantial cuts somewhere or get more money from the City. Professional development and Chromebooks, however, are relatively cheap.
I am, however, voting YES on this budget because I want to encourage our new superintendent, and because of the review processes in place. I hope the elementary review will result in more elementary staff and more equitable staff assignments across schools. I also hope the district planning process will result in a detailed preK-12th grade plan to close income-based opportunity gaps and to allow teachers to personalize instruction enough to meet the very diverse needs and academic abilities of all CPS students.
Comments welcome. Thanks for reading. The final budget step is that it goes to the City Council for their approval. That will take place on Tuesday, May 9th, 6:00 pm, at City Hall. It starts with a public hearing at which parents, students, and other members of the public can comment on the budget, followed by a presentation from Superintendent Salim, then councilors ask questions and make comments, and then they vote on whether to approve the budget or not. The advantage of parents and others speaking at the City Council CPS budget hearing (vs. the School Committee budget hearing) is that the Council members are closer to the purse strings: If CPS needs more resources ($$) to make substantial inroads in opportunity gaps and to educate all students well, it is the City administration and City Council that will make that happen, not the School Committee.