Related: 'Dropping out' of the middle class

Video: Teacher sees little relief in Cleveland

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011 

A Cleveland teacher shares his school's struggle as Ohio's budget deficit mounts. Justin Hons said in October that stimulus money helped stymie the schools' suffering last year, but now, the Cleveland schools are sending warning signs this upcoming school year must face the cuts.

Justin Hons, a teacher in Cleveland, Ohio, demonstrating against budget cuts to his state's education system.

Six months later interviewed by reporter Kat Aaron:

What have the last six months been like for you?

The big news, of course, is the passage of the collective bargaining bill here in Ohio, very similar to the one in Wisconsin. It applies in Ohio to all state employees, and also affects firefighters and police officers.

That definitely affects our economic outlook. You combine that with the cut in state education that our recent state budget took, which hasn’t been approved but likely will be soon, and you have a very dismal outlook for education in the state of Ohio.

How much money will the school system lose?

It’s not a uniform, across-the-board cut. It depends on the school district. It was a very crafty move by the governor, to come up with a very complicated system. I haven’t wrapped my head around it yet. In Cleveland, we’re going to be getting $2 million less than we are this year. We rely on state funding for about a third of our operating costs.

When we last talked, you said that you had faced a layoff but that stimulus funding prevented that. Without that money, how is the funding?

Our school board is looking at a proposal from our school CEO. The proposal is to cut 650 teachers, out of 830 layoffs in the school sytstm. Last year, about 650 teachers were laid off, but about 80 percent of those teachers were brought back to work. Part of that was because of federal money, but our union also gave about $17 million in concessions to bring back those teachers. It’s kind of like, what more can we continue to give? They want to close seven more schools. It’s a very dire situation. We have shrinking population; census reports that our population is under 400,000 here in the city of Cleveland. Our school population has also been shrinking.

You combine that with an expansion in our state, under the new governor, of the charter and voucher programs. Public education is really under attack in so many different ways.

You talked about how the recession and the foreclosure crisis have affected your students. Have you noticed any changes, for the worse or the better, among your students?

I think the situation continues to worsen. You see more and more students who are dealing with some type of economic catastrophe or hardship at home. That affects their classroom performance. We’re seeing more students who are living in poverty. We’re seeing more students who are coming to school hungry. We’re seeing more students with one or two parents unemployed.

All these factors we’re hearing about are real. The increase in unemployment, even if it’s stabilized to some degree in the short term, is very real for these kids who have parents who have been looking for employment for a year or more. I’ve heard of more students who do have a father in their life — because there are a lot who don’t — but those who do, their fathers are leaving for work. Even when they’re in high school, it’s still difficult for them to understand why a parent would voluntarily choose to leave. You get a little bit of resentment, and that affects their school work. Even if it’s just a distraction that other people don’t have to deal with.

Are you optimistic about the next six months?

I feel like all these attacks do present opportunities. In that regard, I don’t feel like there’s no point in continuing on and continuing to fight for better services for these students, better public education facilities, more funding for education. The fact of the matter is, even while we’re having this conversation, just last week it was reported that the S&P 500 had an increase of 15 percent in the last fiscal year. There’s money out there; there are resources out there. It’s just a question of what we as a society are using them for. I maintain a certain hopefulness that really something can be done about this situation. It makes it all the more difficult when my very seat at the table as a teacher is questioned. It’s hard to to imagine that it’s going to make my role as an advocate for public education for my students any easier.

I thnk it’s hard as a teenager. It’s hard to avoid the immediate gratification that comes with joking around, goofing around with your friends. It’s hard to keep that long-term vision and discipline, when all around you, there seems to be a lack of seriousness about your future.

Especially in cities like Detroit, Cleveland, Toledo, Buffalo — the whole Rust Belt. It’s kind of a relic of the last century, in a lot of ways.

What Went Wrong

Donald Barlett and James Steele are revisiting America: What Went Wrong, their landmark 1991 newspaper series, in a new project with the Investigative Reporting Workshop. Over the next year, the project team will examine how four decades of public policy has shaped America's ongoing economic crisis.

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Read an Excerpt

The Betrayal of the American Dream on Google Books

The Betrayal of the American Dream on Google Books

Check out the first chapter of Barlett and Steele's 2012 book here.