School's Out for Laid-Off L.A. Teacher

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On a day most California educators spent organizing supplies and going over lesson plans in preparation for the first day of school, Jean and Michael Cantius* waded through paperwork to apply for a loan modification. The Cantius household is struggling under a double-punch of the California budget crunch: Jean is one of 2,000-plus teachers the Los Angeles Unified School District could not afford to bring back for full-time positions this fall, and Michael had to accept a severe pay cut in order to keep his administration job. If their application for loan modification under Obama's mortgage relief program is rejected, Jean, Michael and their two children will lose their home.

As government revenue from property, income, business, and sales taxes have plummeted nationwide over the past year, states have struggled to slash budgets and slow mounting deficits. Analysis released this week by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that 25 states have reduced funding for K-12 education, citing South Carolina, Florida, and California as those enacting the deepest cuts.

According to the California Teachers Association, districts across the state have laid off more than 20,000 educators. Los Angeles Unified--the second largest school district in the country--had to cut almost a billion dollars from its budget this year. Nearly 9,000 teachers, counselors, and administrators received layoff notices in the Spring, though an infusion of federal stimulus funds eased budget constraints enough to finance re-hiring around 6,700 of them.

Jean is one of the more than 2,000 teachers who weren't so lucky. The middle-school English teacher could have chosen the erratic status of a substitute in lieu of total unemployment, but decided against it. Substitute teachers are those who can answer an early-morning call for work without worrying about last-minute childcare. Also, sporadic assignments could make Jean ineligible for unemployment, while bringing in less income than the paltry government check she can at least expect to arrive with regularity.

Between ongoing educational budget discussions in Sacramento and filed forms awaiting assessment for mortgage modification, it seems like the entirety of Jean's life churns through a muddled flux whose outcome wholly depends on the decision-making of others. In the overwhelmed hands of one anonymous bureaucrat or another lies the power to directly impact her livelihood, her family's future and prosperity, the fate of their home. "The lesson for me is to be patient," Jean explains. 

Rather than obsessing over her unemployment and the possibility of foreclosure, Jean focuses on the positive consequence of getting laid off: "I know how sweet it is to have more time with my kids. It's almost a blessing."  On Tuesday, when LAUSD teachers had their first in-service day of the year, "We were at the beach, so I didn't feel too bad." She took pleasure in texting her former colleagues photos of her day at the ocean, receiving good-natured grumbles of jealousy in response.

She can chuckle over the situation, though she would rather be inside at a staff meeting and preparing for a new crop of students--not only for the gainful employment, but also so she can do her part helping to stimulate and inform the next generation. Education seems almost like a religious calling for Jean, "I love teaching. It's my passion. It's not just what I do, it's who I am." Because she takes the purpose of her profession so seriously, Jean feels troubled by the unrecognized future costs that short-changing education today will create. 

When experts blather about the long-term consequences of this recession, they suffer a crippling shortsightedness if they fail to acknowledge the negative impact it could have on the formative experiences of today's young students. Increased class sizes, reduced instruction time, decreased specialized programming or tutoring--these are just a few of the most direct results of educational budget cuts.

The long-term effects of decreased educational funding are incalculable in any concrete terms, no matter how sophisticated standardized testing may become in the next decade. In five years, how could one measure the comparative absence of creative thought in a student who grew up in a school that had cut its art program?

Thomas Jefferson believed an educated electorate to be a necessary pre-condition for any vibrant democracy, writing in 1822, for example, just a few years after founding the University of Virginia: "I look to the diffusion of light and education as the resource most to be relied on for ameliorating the conditions, promoting the virtue and advancing the happiness of man." What kind of future can the country expect if budgetary concerns cripple the formation of the formative years for an entire generation?

"We only get one chance at education," Jean says. "Once the kids stop liking school, it's hard to get them to like it again." Even if schools recover from these financial constraints, Jean worries that the damage from a couple years of underfunding will have a lasting impact.

As one might expect from a teacher, Jean also recognizes critical lessons that have become obvious through grappling with a new financial reality: "I'm learning what's important in life. Hard times make us question what we want. What are our goals."

It makes Jean think back on the tiny two-bedroom apartment where the family of four lived before buying their home at the exact peak of California's real estate market in July 2007. With two small children, it seemed the appropriate time in their married life for an upgrade to home ownership, particularly because the apartment made them feel on top of each other constantly. Jean returned to teaching in 2007, so the Cantius family was a two-earner household when they purchased their modest 1950s-era 3-bedroom modular home in the Valley for around a half-million dollars. Enriched by hindsight, Jean now wonders, "Why are we killing ourselves? Half a million dollars would buy us a mansion in other places." But she doesn't daydream about mansions as much as she does about their little apartment: "We were so totally happy there," Jean recalls.

Buying a home completed a portrait of what Jean had imagined her life should look like, but reality never quite achieved the perfection of that dreamy ideal. Listening to Jean talk reminds me of Michael Babin, who lost his 4900-square-foot American Dream home in Las Vegas, but found happiness in a 29-foot travel trailer. Like Michael and many others I have met on this journey, Jean is realizing the "pursuit of happiness" may represent something different than she used to believe.

 *Jean and Michael requested pseudonyms to protect their privacy.

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Christina Davidson is a writer, photographer, and book editor who specializes in national security, terrorism, and war. She also writes for the food blog Feed The Masses. More

Christina Davidson is a writer, photographer and book editor based in Washington, D.C. She specializes in editing books about national security, terrorism, and war, but writes for a broad array of publications, including the popular frugalicious foodie blog Feed The Masses. She is working on a book based on her Recession Road Trip project for TheAtlantic.com.
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