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Selling Our Students Short

A Senator Speaks Up

Posted: 2003-01-16

Vermont's Senator Jeffords delivered this speech on the floor of the Senate January 14, 2003. Ask your Senator what he's doing.

Usually in times of war, the question of national priorities is summed up with the simple phrase ?guns or butter.? But today, I fear that the choices aren?t that simple. Perhaps it is time that we retool that phrase and ask ourselves, will it be guns or butter, tax breaks or textbooks?

As the threat of war dominates our front page headlines and as we talk about stimulating our economy with billions of dollars in tax breaks, I was astonished when I turned to an inside page of The New York Times last weekend and read the headline, ?Schools Ending Year Early Among Efforts to Cut Costs.?

If I may, Mr. President, quote from that story: Fourth-grade students in Portland, Oregon, will not read about their state?s history in their social studies classes, nor will they study the metric system in math class, nor will they study electricity in their science class. That is because some schools in Portland will be forced to slash more than a month from their school calendars this year because the money has run dry.

And Oregon is not alone in this crisis. In California, Oklahoma ? all over the country ? schools are having to cut millions of dollars, and they expect even deeper cuts in the year to come. Schools are cutting janitors, cafeteria workers and substitute teachers in an effort to keep their classrooms in tact. One teacher described it as ?death by a thousand cuts.?

In my home state of Vermont, there is talk of whether a four-day school week would be an option.

This all comes on the heels of last week?s celebration of the one-year anniversary of the No Child Left Behind Act. Mr. President, something is dreadfully wrong with this picture, and if we don?t address this now, the consequences will be with us for generations to come.

What kind of a nation have we become that we put so little value on a school day? Every school day is sacred. It is an opportunity to expand a child?s horizons, an opportunity to help a child build new relationships, an opportunity for a child to learn.

Our nation?s public schools cannot overcome the obstacles they face on the cheap. We might pride ourselves as being a superpower, yet we lag dangerously behind our counterparts in our commitment to fund education. Of the major industrial nations, the United States ranks among the lowest in funding education at the federal level, providing only 7 percent of the costs. This figure pales by comparison when you look at our overseas competition.

Other nations hold their teachers in the highest regard, and compensate them accordingly. We do not.

I laud the efforts of the administration to boost Title One funding for the poorest schools, but the $1 billion increase this year is still far short of the mark. And I once again remind everyone in the chamber of our failed promise to fund 40 percent of our schools? special education costs. We made that promise more than a quarter of a century ago. It is shameful that we have fallen so short.

In other nations, students spend far more time in classrooms than they do here in the United States. In China, the average school year is 250 days. In Europe, students spend an average of 190 days a year in the classroom. In the United States, we are down to 180 days, and that number is likely to fall as school budgets are slashed, as we see happening today in Oregon.

We cannot, and we should not, stand idly by while our schools struggle without enough money to do their jobs. This is a national disgrace.

I understand that there are many priorities facing our nation, perhaps too many for what our recessionary budget can afford. But when we consider guns and butter, we must not allow textbooks to slip to the bottom of the list. The security of our great nation is at risk, and the threat is right here at home.

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