In addition to traditional teaching, American schools provide many social services

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American public schools are increasingly
providing a wide range of social services

By Tony Favro, USA Editor

22 July 2006: In 2006, the California Legislature approved a US$55.1 billion budget for the state’s public schools. This represented a record increase of $5.1 billion over the previous year’s state education budget. Taxpayers in California supported the record spending increase because it promised to restore music, art, and physical education programs; hire guidance counselors; expand teacher recruitment and preschool programs; and buy new textbooks. These promises were fulfilled – but less than half of the spending increase was devoted to them. Most of the money paid for new or expanded social services: programs to discourage gang membership, treat AIDS, prevent cigarette smoking, provide childcare to teenage mothers, and the like.

This is the new reality of public education for children in kindergarten through grade 12 in America. Schools are becoming the social safety net for students and their families.

US public schools routinely provide before-school programs, breakfasts, lunches, after-school care, and evening programs. They offer programs to teach children about sex and how to drive. In structured and formal ways, they try to keep children away from drugs, make sure they don’t carry weapons, instill ethical behavior, prevent sexually transmitted diseases, fight alcohol abuse, prevent student suicides, prevent gang violence, teach conflict mediation, shelter homeless children, ensure students are vaccinated, combat obesity, and provide assistance to teenage mothers and their children, among many other social services.

Student sex education and student meals have been around for more than a century. But the widespread provision of other social services by public schools is a much more recent phenomenon.

Each of the past six years, the administration of US President George W. Bush has proposed federal budgets which leave spending flat or decreased for programs like child care, public health, low-income housing, job training, family and neighborhood services, and environmental protection.

And each year the biggest increase in federal spending for domestic programs not related to national security is for public education. Under President Bush, the federal Department of Education’s budget increased 40 per cent since 2001. Funding for the neediest public schools increased nearly 60 per cent.

State and local governments have also increased spending for public education to unprecedented levels. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, $388 billion was spent by local, state, and federal governments for K-12 public education in 2003, the most recent year for which data is available. Total spending nationally increased 20 per cent, or $64 billion, between 2000 and 2003.

While many – perhaps most – Americans believe that the increased spending for schools goes primarily towards higher teacher salaries, lower class sizes, new textbooks, and other activities directly related to classroom instruction, the reality is that a significant portion of the increased funding pays for social services. It is difficult to quantify an exact dollar amount because social service spending is almost always categorized, with traditional classroom-related activities, as “expenditures for instruction” in local, state, and federal budgets for public education.

According to the Institute for Educational Leadership, a nonpartisan advocacy group for children and families, 3,000 to 5,000 “community schools” are open on any given day in the US. Sometimes they are known as “family resource centers”, “full-service schools”, “community centers”, “centers of excellence”, or similar-sounding names. They are essentially academic, medical-care, mental-health, drug-education, homework-help, pregnancy-prevention, crisis-intervention, tutoring, violence-reduction, adult-education, employment-referral, and anything-else-that’s-needed-and-can-be-funded institutions.

Virtually all of these community centers began as traditional schools and expanded to their present one-stop, full-service capacity within the past decade.

Support for expanding the mission of schools is widespread. For example, a 2004 poll of Ohio residents by the KnowledgeWorks Foundation, an education philanthropy, found that 80 per cent of Ohioans of all backgrounds favored more spending on public K-12 education. In a national poll, the 2005 Gallup education poll, inadequate funding led the list of the public’s main concerns about education.

Policymakers of all political persuasions understandably oblige taxpayers’ wishes regarding children and education.

Conservatives push for such services as character education, sexual abstinence classes, and random school drug testing. Liberals focus on issues such as school condom distribution, substance-abuse counseling, and tolerance towards gay students. Political careers at both ends of the spectrum are helped (indeed made) by supporting increased funding for anti-drug programs, for ensuring that children don’t carry weapons, for dealing with student depression and suicide, or for discouraging drunk driving.

In short, it has become exceedingly popular to transfer social service responsibilities to schools. And it doesn’t matter who runs the schools.

In the United States, there is a debate over who should control public schools, an independent school board or the mayor of the jurisdiction in which the schools are located. This seems to have no bearing on the services schools are expected to provide.

For example, in New York City, Mayor Bloomberg (Republican), who runs the schools, is proposing the creation of 80 Beacon school-based community centers in his 2007 budget. In the city of Rochester, New York, the independent school board (Democratic) is proposing a “children’s zone” that would offer cradle-to-grave social services to residents of impoverished neighborhoods.

Often local governments, school districts, and nonprofits work together to reorganize social services using schools as the hub. In Portland and Multnomah County, Oregon, for example, the SUN (Schools Uniting Neighborhoods) Centers evolved from a city-county-school-nonprofit partnership.  

In almost all community schools, academic classes are taught by professional educators and non-academic services are provided by nonprofit partners. The service providers are simply following the money. While funding for neighborhood-based social programs is drying up in America’s current political climate, funding for schools is increasing. Services that nonprofits previously offered independently or in partnership with city governments are now being operated through the schools.

A high-stakes game is being played in America’s public schools, especially in cities. On the one hand, children are given more individualized support. On the other hand, the safety net doesn’t extend beyond school property.

The unstated expectation is that children will eventually be able to use the support and knowledge they receive at school to confront the economic and social forces that destabilize American urban families and neighborhoods. Children, in other words, are expected to be the vehicles of urban transformation.

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