Priceless classroom moments at stake in this budget fight

By Katie Kurjakovic

My name is Katie Kurjakovic, and I teach English as a new language for K-6 students in Queens, N.Y. As hard as it was, I chose to spend May 25 in the halls of Congress rather than with my students, because I am appalled about the cuts in the federal budget proposed by President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Congress needs to fully understand that these cuts will lead to larger classes at my school and schools across the country. Our representatives in Congress must appreciate that the debate isn’t about billions, it’s about moments. Without the funding needed to keep class sizes down so that teachers and students have time to really connect and deepen learning, many of those priceless opportunities will surely be lost.

This is no small matter. My school is like a little United Nations, with families coming from 30 countries and students speaking 21 languages. We have as many as 32 students in a class. It’s not fair to stuff students into a classroom, unable to get the best from teachers who want to teach a lesson well, who want to engage students, who want to give individual attention to each child and keep discipline strong.

For every child who is added, I lose the ability to give all my students the moments they need with me.

All of those things are at risk if this administration gets its way by eliminating the $2.1 billion Supporting Effective Instruction State Grants program under Title II of the Every Student Succeeds Act. That would pull the rug out from under our kids — zeroing out funds that make smaller class sizes a reality in my school and schools around the country. That would be devastating. In fact, when I told colleagues that I would be making this trip to Washington to talk about the proposed cuts, they offered one piece of advice: Explain to them that class size matters.

Why do educators make smaller class sizes their top wish?

It’s because of “the moments.” For every child who is added, I lose the ability to give all my students the moments they need with me. These are moments when the important work happens.

These are the moments when I sit next to John, one of my students. We tap out words together every day. Then the day finally arrives when he looks at me with his face shining and says, “I read that by myself!” It clicks, and he never stops reading.

These are the moments when I stop to show Diana, one of my special needs students, what I mean by run-on sentences. I point to one of her sentences, which runs across two pages of what she’s written. I explain how she can break up that two-page sentence into perfect, smaller parts.

I’m talking about the moments when I notice Tenzin, one of my classroom newcomers. I notice he is confused by the vocabulary I’m using to explain equivalent fractions, so I hand him a fraction tile set. That way, he can see what I mean and can follow along with the lesson.

What happens to these moments if our class sizes go up, if there is not enough of me to go around? How will students be able to make up for the rich student-teacher exchanges lost to budget cuts? This is what haunts me. And that is why I went to Washington, reluctantly sacrificing one day with my students so that Congress doesn’t sacrifice many, many more to the budget ax.

I went to tell Congress to do the right thing. Don’t cut funding. Don’t make matters worse. Don’t spin class sizes out of control and harm our students. With class sizes of more than 30 or 40 in some schools, there’s no justification for any of that. We have to meet all children where they are, to help each one blossom and thrive.

Based on its budget plan, this administration apparently just doesn’t care. But I do care, and so do my fellow teachers, so do their parents — and so does every child who has lost those moments they deserve to huge class sizes.

ENL teacher Katie Kurjakovic is a 25-year classroom veteran and a member of the United Federation of Teachers.

The United Federation of Teachers is a union of New York City educators and other professionals who care deeply about public education.

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