Budget cuts give Christians more chances to be generous, pt. 1: education

Our Legislature is speaking loudly and carrying a big cleaver ...

We’re Christians, right? We’re generous in caring for the least of these, my brethren.

I hope we’re ready to be as generous as we’re going to need to be in the next months and years. In my state, total charitable giving by all people is about $5 billion — a little over $3 billion for purposes other than religion. Some of that goes to missions and community service. But many Christians say they don’t give to or serve those in need because the government has taken over this responsibility that they believe belongs to the church.

So since we give, on average, 2 to 4.5 percent of our income to charity, I wonder how we’ll respond in the days ahead as our Legislature takes away some of the tax “burden” that has supported the least of these and leaves it up to us.

The state budget shortfall being reconciled as big as all charitable giving in my state for non-religious purposes. The Legislature is planning some big program cuts to cover it.

Filling those gaps would create some very large opportunities for Christian generosity. Will we be up to it? Here’s just one of the arenas where cuts are being discussed: early childhood education:

* Cut all state funding for the agency that rates the quality of preschool programs. “We’ll be going back to the days when children were dying in preschools,” one agency staffer told me. 

* Cut all state funding for scholarships that allow 104,300 low-income children to attend higher quality preschools. This won’t affect the federal share of the preschool scholarships. Nor will it affect parents who can afford to pay up front for preschool. In fact, the plan under discussion gives them tax credits. That is to say: you only get a “scholarship” if you don’t actually need one.

* Cut all state funding for “More at Four” preschool programs. That will save $33 million, at $4,330 for each of 7,621 children served. It won’t affect federal funding for Project Headstart, which serves 19,000 other needy preschoolers in our state. Cutting Headstart would be up to the federal government.

Together, these preschool programs serve about 20 percent of the preschool children in my state — not all of the children in poverty, but a good portion.

Why is cutting preschool a problem? Because starting school today isn’t like what I remember or what you may remember. Today a child is expected to already know many things before arriving at public school that as recently as 1988 were part of the first grade curriculum. How to write her name. His alphabet and the sounds of most of the letters. The state and national standards we have today mean that if your family can’t pay between $6,000 and $15,000 per child per year for a quality preschool (or if you haven’t been coached on the academic preschool “essentials” so you will teach the child yourself), your child will start kindergarten behind. And how likely is a child to catch up if he or she starts out behind at age 4?

Now I’m going to be clear: these fund cuts affect low-income families. So middle- and upper-income families who can afford preschool are golden. All these cuts mean for them is that their kids will start school even further ahead of poor kids. It will be harder for rich and poor kids to succeed in the same schools and classrooms, because kids with pre-K education will begin school a year or two ahead. Unless someone — and I’m thinking Christians, here — does something to help the poor kids get off to a good start.

Because if we don’t, we’re going to end up with more cities like the one where I work: where almost half the adults have a bachelor’s degree or better, and almost all of the rest read at a 5th grade level or lower.

Are we ready to serve God with our time and our offerings so we can hold onto the taxes we seem to think are so important?

About Carlene Byron

Writer, editor, publicist, communications project manager ... I've written technology and infrastructure; I used to edit New England Church Life and The New England Christian and I've freelanced to publications ranging from Commonweal to Christianity Today. I'm now living in my hometown in Maine and am speaking about global perspectives on suicide prevention.
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