As I sipped my coffee Friday morning and pored over the local paper a school news item caught my attention. School lunches, it seems, will go up a dime a day in Rockdale County. That increase is supposed to move us closer to federal guidelines for school lunches. In other words, we will be asking students who pay for their lunch to pony up a daily sum that is closer to what students who eat on the government's dime pay -- or don't pay. We the people will be paying about $2.59 per school lunch in 2014. Of course more than 70 percent of our students now receive a free or reduced cost lunch. Everyone who gets a free or reduced lunch gets the same consideration for breakfast, too, so the increase in price will only affect a small percentage of the students.
But the increasingly large numbers of free lunches being served affects us all. Now please don't hear something I am not saying. I want students to be healthy. I want them to eat. I want them to learn -- and they cannot learn on an empty stomach, and the pizza and fries and sausage biscuits that a lot of these children get at school are their most nutritious meals of the day. But let me tell you something else I know. A lot of the students who sign up for free and reduced lunches are no more entitled to that service -- based on their parents' earnings and family size -- than I am.
How do I know that? Have I seen the forms they turn in? Do I have inside information because I used to work for the school system? No, no and no. I know this because I have eyes and can see the clothes those students wear and the smartphones they talk and text on all day. I see the cars they drive to school and the houses they live in and I know what their mamas and them do for a living.
And I know that it is easier to just accept whatever they put on the free and reduced forms than it is to investigate and make sure they deserve the federal funds they are given. Plus the lunch program gets an extra two-bits for each free meal served. That adds up over 180 days. Oops. It's only 170 this year. Sorry. I forgot.
The federal government is responsible for the school lunch program, but the state of Georgia is responsible for the sorry state of financial affairs of our schools in general.
Everybody wants good public schools, but nobody seems to want to pay for them. I brought home more money each month as a teacher eight years ago than I did this year, the last of my career. That's a sad commentary on our state's priorities, and I want everyone to know that the Rockdale County school board bent over backwards to maintain a full schedule and make sure our teachers continued to receive our local supplements. Each year the state cuts more and more funds from local school budgets.
I don't care what anybody says about anything or what high-sounding rhetoric people spew. The most important factor in education is the classroom teacher, and more than any other commodity they need time in the classroom to get the job done.
When I started teaching AP U.S. History at Heritage High School I saw my students every day for 55 minutes a day. That was 165 hours, no matter how you cut it -- before taking time away for the occasional pep rally or field trip or standardized test.
For the past two or three years we have had an eight-period block schedule and I saw my kids 90 minutes every other day. That adds up to 135 hours -- with lots more time taken away for tests and test preparation. We have had 30 hours less -- the equivalent of 33 days -- and are still expected to teach the same material. Can't be done.
We are also serving many, many students who live outside our district borders. We have Clayton County children and Newton County children and DeKalb County children -- plus lots and lots of students who should be educated by the Mexican government. Each one of those children is taking funds away from those who are legally in our attendance zone.
Again, don't hear something I am not saying. I don't think there is a single teacher in our school system who ever differentiated in any way among the students who came into their rooms. We all try our best to help each child reach his or her full potential. But the simple fact is we don't have enough money to offer the kind of education to each child that we would like to and every dime -- whether it be spent on a school lunch or a ream of paper or providing more face time between teacher and student -- helps.
But public education is a low priority on the state of Georgia's needs list.
If you think educating children is expensive, just wait until you see how costly not educating them turns out to be.
Darrell Huckaby is a local educator and author. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. For past columns, visit www.rockdalecitizen.com or www.newtoncitizen.com.