Kids, Cuts, and Consequences: Reading School District
Featured in the September 2012 issue of Voice
About this series. This story about the Reading School District is the latest in a series appearing in Voice on “Kids, Cuts, and Consequences." The series looks behind the scenes at school districts hit hard by Gov. Tom Corbett’s nearly $1 billion in cuts to public education over the past two years. An analysis by The Associated Press found that low-income schools lost more than three times the money per student as more affluent districts. The York City, McKeesport Area, Pocono Mountain, and Sharon City school districts were profiled in previous issues.
In the Reading School District, a lot of students need a lot of help.
Reading is not just the poorest city in Berks County. It is not just the poorest city in Pennsylvania.
Reading is the poorest city in the United States.
The struggles of poverty are not supposed to stand in the way of a quality public education. The students who learn in Reading deserve the same education as everyone else.
But, after state funding cuts decimated the district – cuts that went far deeper in Reading than they did in the district’s more affluent neighbors – Reading’s students are definitely feeling the consequences.
“This isn’t just an issue of school funding or taxes or politics,” Reading EA President Bryan Sanguinito shouted to 700 PSEA members who crowded the state Capitol rotunda in June. “This is a moral issue. These cuts are morally reprehensible. Educational opportunities for children have been decimated.”
Poor get poorer
Across Pennsylvania, educators, parents, and community leaders have used a lot of different words to describe Gov. Tom Corbett’s nearly $1 billion in public school funding cuts.
Words like “draconian,” “devastating,” and “unprecedented.”
But, in Reading, these cuts have been far worse than in nearly any other school district.
Reading has lost $14.5 million in state funding over the past two years. That is an 11 percent cut. Standing alone, those numbers and percentages are dramatic. But when they are compared with funding cuts to Reading’s suburban neighbors, these cuts are nothing but staggering.
Reading, the school district with the highest poverty and lowest local tax base of any in Berks County, has been forced to absorb the deepest cuts. The school district with the second largest state funding cut doesn’t even come close.
Morale takes hit
Numbers don’t lie. But they don’t tell the whole story, either.
In Reading, the story gets worse.
The $14.5 million in state funding cuts have created a $40 million budget shortfall. To close that gaping hole, the school district furloughed nearly 200 educators and support professionals.
For educators who were handed a pink slip, the news was devastating. For the students they serve, the consequences have been grave.
“The morale in my building has really taken a turn for the worse,” said Debra Redcay, a kindergarten teacher at Glenside Elementary School. “For the kids, they know things are happening. It’s all about the money and the finances.”
Both students and teachers face a tremendous amount of uncertainty.
Class sizes have increased. Programs have been cut. Maintenance on crumbling school buildings has been deferred.
Sandra Madeira attended Reading’s schools as a child. She went to Sixteenth and Haak Elementary School. Now, Madeira teaches the fourth grade there. And she knows what these budget cuts are costing her students.
“We have larger class sizes, and we’ve lost programs and field trips that urban students so desperately need,” she said. “Our classrooms provide a social and emotional safety net that our students don’t get anywhere else. They need these programs. Now, they’re losing them.”
The devastating state funding cuts and the painful consequences on Reading’s students don’t just present huge problems today.
The challenges will compound in the future. They will accumulate over months and years. And they will keep getting worse – until some kind of dramatic solution is reached.
These problems won’t be solved overnight. But, unless they are solved soon, the school district itself is at risk.
The committed educators who work in the Reading School District aren’t taking these cuts lying down.
They are speaking out.
And they are clamoring for elected officials in Harrisburg to make better choices about how to fund public education – the fundamental building block of an educated, vibrant society.
In June, more than 700 PSEA members converged on the state Capitol in Harrisburg. They fanned out to dark-paneled offices in the Senate and the House of Representatives, and lobbied legislators to make funding the public schools a top priority.
Then, those advocates crowded the ornate Capitol rotunda.
They waived signs. They draped over balconies. They filled every inch of space in the enormous room. And they shouted at the top of their lungs to “Save Our Schools.”
Reading was well-represented. Bryan Sanguinito was a featured speaker. And he didn’t mince words.
“We are not here today to ask,” Sanguinito said, aiming his words at Gov. Corbett. “We are here today to demand that you honor your commitment to the public schools.”
Sanguinito reminded the crowd that lawmakers have both a moral and legal responsibility to fund the public schools. He cited the Pennsylvania Constitution, which says that lawmakers must provide for a “thorough and efficient” system of public education.
“In our public schools, we educate students regardless of zip code, regardless of income,” he said.
Pointing down a marble hallway toward the governor’s office, Sanguinito admonished Corbett to remember that.
“Our students deserve better,” he shouted.
Now, it’s up to lawmakers to decide.
But, for the students in Reading, the nation’s poorest city, those decisions need to come soon – before the cuts are too deep and the consequences are too painful.