Education and Athletics Compete for Scarcer Resources in Financially-Strapped Schools
The California school district where I’ve coached girl’s basketball for the past two years is in the midst of a financial crisis. As the state’s economic crisis has developed, thanks in large part to our legislators and governor, school districts have undertaken a process of belt-tightening that is matched only by the gradual emaciation of the participants on CBS’s Survivor.
The Mt. Diablo Unified School District, where I coach, and where I once attended middle and high school, announced that it must cut $28 million from its upcoming three-year budget. This action will need to be taken on the heels of the defeat of local Measure D, which sought to increase property taxes by $99 per year to raise $7 million of funding for five years, and which would have replaced funds the school board was forced to cut earlier this year. All the while, state funding for the district has been reduced.
Four hundred teachers have already received pink slips, and school board members have projected the loss of reduced class sizes, elimination of programs for fifth grade music and science and art programs, not to mention the postponement of maintenance projects that have already been deferred. The return to larger class sizes is, indeed, a sad thing. Forty percent of the district’s students are English language learners, who won’t be able to receive the support and attention they need in larger classes and from over-burdened teachers.
The status of high school athletics is uncertain for the beleaguered district, but the school board plans to consider funding after-school athletics through private donations.
I love sports, and I love coaching high school sports, but when, for example, half of the teachers at one elementary school are losing their jobs; when school sites can’t be adequately maintained, arts programs are eliminated and kids who need special attention can’t get it, it is absurd to spend money to support interscholastic athletics! Shouldn’t the district be soliciting donations to fund teaching positions and the restoration of music and art programs, which provide a broader benefit?
I admit this is an extreme notion, but it reminds me of North Korea, where millions are starving, while Kim Il Jong spends billions to defend his dictatorship.
I know there are those who will disagree with me on this. They’ll assert that sports are important for so many reasons. For example, sports build character (a myth, see John Wooden) and self-esteem (for those who win starting positions on teams). They promote a competitive attitude (if the student is given more than a minute or two on the field or court to compete) and teamwork (if the starters don’t shun the bench players). And the silliest notion is the belief that high school athletics will help a student win admission to the college of their choice. Firstly, so many kids are playing sports now, that no one gains an advantage by participating in interscholastic athletics (a college counselor confirmed this to me). Secondly, only two-to-three percent of high school athletes go on to play sports in college.
It’s time to bite the bullet on interscholastic sports, and redeploy funds that support athletics to areas that will have a significant impact on the lives and futures of those who need the most help. Athletes have alternative outlets for competitive sports participation through club teams, like those affiliated with the Amateur Athletic Union, American Youth Soccer Organization, US Swimming and youth baseball organizations. Then, there are private schools, which, through tuition and endowments, have the resources to fund athletics.
Kids who struggle in large classrooms, who don’t speak English well or who need special attention don’t have an alternative.
It's time to impose a moratorium on high school interscholastic athletics until such time that a sufficient level of funding is restored to financially impaired districts. Having taken such a step, those in most need can receive the education they deserve and are entitled to. At the same time, when funds for education once again flow from Sacramento, districts can critically evaluate the costs and benefits of supporting interscholastic athletic programs. Our schools, after all, exist to educate our children and teach them what they need to succeed in their lives, and with the achievement of success, enable them to create leisure time for playing games.