By Amanda Litvinov
Katharine Saavedra describes her daughter Ana as a “pretty typical fifteen-year-old.” She “looooves” her new iPad and talking to friends on the phone, and overall she likes attending University High School in Los Angeles.
But not on the days it takes the school bus hours to get her there.
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“My daughter has autism, and once we’ve stood on the corner waiting for the bus more than about 15 minutes, she starts to get agitated. It’s just the nature of her disability,” Saavedra said.
“There have been times the bus is one-and-a-half, even two hours late picking her up, and I know we can essentially kiss the rest of her day good-bye; she’s not going to be able to concentrate and do what she needs to when she finally gets there.”
In California, bus rides for special needs students are supposed to be limited to an hour or less. But because of furloughs in the transportation division, Ana and her classmates have spent as long as three hours getting to school when a substitute driver is at the wheel. And the same goes for getting home.
“These kids haven’t eaten since lunch, they can’t use the bathroom—which for some of them is a big issue—and sometimes parents can’t get any information about what’s going on because the radios don’t work,” said Saavedra, who routinely waits 20 to 30 minutes when she calls the bus dispatchers for information.
“These transportation problems are more than just an inconvenience for us. It’s adversely affecting my daughter’s ability to learn at school.”
These effects of budget cuts are hard to see from Capitol Hill, where federal lawmakers stood by as across-the-board sequester cuts went into effect on March 1, shorting states a total of $3 billion in federal funding they depend on to fulfill mandates like services for special education students.
But parents and grandparents woefully witness the effects of federal and state education cuts every day.
Patti Bennett of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, saw her great-granddaughter Makenzie, now 10, heartbroken when she learned that her art teacher had lost his position for the 2012-13 school year due to budget cuts.
Bennett explained that Governor Corbett had slashed money for education, and that’s why teachers were losing their jobs.
“Makenzie said to me, ‘Well, Nanna, if we don’t get a good education how do they expect us to run the country with we’re older?’ And then she said, ‘I guess what I will do is have lemonade stands and give all the money to education.’”
Now, with federal sequester cuts compounding education funding crises in states like Pennsylvania, concerned residents like Bennett are anxiously reading reports of pink slips issued to teachers in communities large and small.
“Our schools are facing enough challenges without the governor blaming them for his own failed policies,” said Bennett, who added that she is looking forward to 2014, when Corbett faces re-election.
North Carolina mom Nonya Brown-Chesney said B.T. Bullock Elementary, the school her son attends, “is a wonderful school, but I know they need more staff.”
“As a parent of a student who attends a Title One school, I know many of the students there need extra support. They need more staff, more supplies and more services—not cuts,” said Brown-Chesney, who is also an educator in a neighboring district.
She does not yet know whether the sequester—which includes $740 million in cuts to Title I, the federal program that supplements funding for schools in low-income communities—will mean additional layoffs for Lee County schools, but she fears that her son will lose opportunities like foreign language instruction, music and art, and the gifted program.
“I want my son to be future ready. I don’t want his education to be compromised because of funding; he deserves access to a well-rounded education.”
She also worries that his classmates, a number of whom are learning English as their second language, will not have the supports they need if classroom aide positions are cut as a result of English Language Acquisition funds lost to the sequester.
“What’s going to become of the students who depend on these services?” she asked. “Are they going to be left to fail and held back? Every student deserves the same chance, regardless of where they live or what their home or incomes are.”
Katharine Saavedra wishes every lawmaker could see, as she and all parents do, the ripple effects of their actions, or their inaction in the case of the federal sequester cuts.
“They keep cutting the education budget—it’s just cuts, cuts, cuts,” she said. “But let’s face it, we’ve already reached a tipping point where the schools can’t do everything they’re supposed to do.”
“Are they trying to push the public school system into its last days? If politicians end up completely destroying the school system, they’ll still complain that they don’t have enough money.”
The saddest part, said Saavedra, is knowing that it’s students who are being forced to make the biggest sacrifices.
“These are our children—how is it a wise decision to say we can’t spend money on them?”