Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Are our schools as strong as they can be?

By State Rep. Liz Chavez

Fall is approaching and that means two things: Our children are heading back to school, and football season is here. Whether on the high school gridiron or in college stadiums, Idahoans love to cheer the successes of our star athletes. Only a handful of them will “go pro,” and even fewer will earn fame and fortune, but everyone who plays comes away with a lasting sense of accomplishment and teamwork.

This sense of individual achievement and opportunity – combined with the thrill of doing something great as part of a team – are among the most cherished values we Idahoans seek to instill in our children. We know that not every child will make the major leagues in their chosen field, but we want all our children to have every opportunity to succeed, no matter what sort of career or calling they pursue as adults. That’s why it’s important to take stock each fall and ask: Are our neighborhood schools the best they can be to help our children define their own dreams and reach their potential?

That question looms larger than usual this fall, since our children are returning to school under state education budgets that were cut by the 2009 Idaho Legislature for the first time in state history! Democratic lawmakers fought against those deep cuts, since we knew that funding sources were available to help keep our neighborhood schools strong, even in the economic downturn. In the end, however, Republican priorities prevailed, forcing cuts in the number of classroom teachers and diminished opportunities for our children. With that in mind, here are a few things that parents can watch for as children return to school this fall:

Has your child’s class size increased? Does the teacher have the same sort of help he or she did last year? With budget cutbacks, many districts have reduced and each child will get less personal attention. Tell your children to alert you or a teacher right away if they feel they are falling behind. Barebones budgets offer few resources to teachers, children and parents if a skill is not mastered the first time around, but every parent has the right to expect that their child has the opportunity to learn to his or her full potential.

Have you met your child’s teachers? Back-to-school nights are a fixture of the first month of school, giving you a good way to see how your child spends the school day. Later in the fall, parent-teacher conferences will help you team up with your child’s teachers to address small problems before they become big ones.

What about extracurricular activities? Athletics, the arts and other clubs give children many paths to success later in life. This year, due to the Legislature’s budgetary shell games, many Idaho families will be stretched to pay more than ever for these important opportunities. That’s something to keep in mind next year when elected officials tell you they held down your taxes.

Idahoans are committed to the community schools that have served our state so well over the decades. We know that historically, these schools are essential to offering all children the “level playing field” they deserve to have as they prepare to excel in life, no matter what opportunities await them. We will continue to fight to keep our schools strong and hope that even in these difficult times, our neighborhood schools continue to be places where our children can build their dreams – the dreams that will keep Idaho strong.

State Rep. Liz Chavez of Lewiston serves in the Idaho Legislature. She is a retired middle school teacher and sits on the House Education Committee.