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By Dr. Lauren Birney and Dr. Jonathan Hill

STEM — K-12 education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math — is fundamental to the training of a technological workforce, the innovations environmental problems demand, and the competitive advantage the global economy requires. It is one of the few priorities on which educators, parents, business leaders, and public officials generally agree, even prompting the White House and some in Congress to jump in. But where is the real commitment from Washington? Dr. Lauren Birney, a Pace Academy Faculty Scholar, and co-author Dr. Jonathan Hill, take us to the education front line. They are part of the Pace University STEM Center Collaboratory. (A version of this post was first published on The Hill’s Congress Blog.)

STEM education is in crisis. Before the Sequester controversy engulfed Washington, projected reductions in federal aid had already created serious questions about whether American schools would be able to meet the national mandate to improve science and mathematics teaching. Now, a hard examination of the realities of sequestration moves the conversation from an abstract discussion of “what-ifs” to a very tangible set of economic realities. Even as you read this, budget directors, in the midst of finalizing 2013–14 academic year budgets, are planning for an estimated $1.3 billion shortfall nationally that will have a very real impact on school programs in the fall.

One of the first complexities that students of computer science get to puzzle over is the concept of abstraction: the fact that small symbols or chunks of programming code serve as objects, or stand-ins for the more complex sections of code that drive the software. As those of us in education wrestle with the looming effects of sequestration on our budgets, our institutions, our programs and our people – students, parents, teachers and administrators, we move quickly from the abstract concept of what sequester is to the very tangible struggle with the impact and timing of the looming budget cuts.

The fact that spending on education is considered ‘discretionary’ is, in itself, cause for concern. Instead of investing in our children’s future, the spending cuts would hurt students of all ages across the United States, and the American Association of School Administrators has estimated the reduction of federal funding will result in serious interruption in education services for underserved and underrepresented populations including women, Latino and African-American students.

The indiscriminate cuts would slash funding that helps some of our youngest children succeed, cut funding for teachers, and reduce grants and work-study programs. Among other education programs, the sequester would cut more than $400 million from Head Start, a program that provides at-risk preschoolers with education, health, nutrition, and family-support services. These cuts would force roughly 70,000 young children out of the Head Start program.

The sequester would also slash nearly $725 million from Title I—the largest federally funded education program in the United States—meaning schools serving more than 1 million disadvantaged students would be left struggling to pay for teachers and tutors. Texas, for example, could lose more than $67 million in Title I education funding, meaning local schools could be forced to furlough teachers. Cutbacks will affect millions of American students and will affect every stage of our education pipeline from the youngest children in Head Start all the way through to financial aid for young adults in college.

As STEM Educators, we are particularly disheartened to learn of the cuts in after school programs; places where STEM students receive the real-world opportunity to apply the theories they learn in classrooms. Reductions to the science club budgets means that fewer aspiring scientists log lab hours and learn the real work involved with scientific inquiry. Decreases in robotics clubs funding will indicate that the next generation of engineers and computer programmers will not get to experience the epiphanies that inspire a student to a career in the sciences and technology.  Our priorities should be abstract entities!

In addition, the effect on morale on an American education system that has still not recovered from the steep decline in federal and state funding over the past five years will be steep. The National Education Association estimates that our own state, New York, will lose more than 1100 teaching jobs as a direct result of the sequester. Those lost jobs will inevitably result in larger class sizes and fewer opportunities for American children.

At a time when every sector of our society including government, industry, academia, K–12 educators and American families understands that our nation’s future depends on smart investment in education in general and better teaching in the STEM disciplines in particular, allowing the draconian budget cuts mandated by sequestration is madness. Let’s hope that our legislators will hear other national leaders and realize that the abstract concept of leverage in budget negotiations is overtaken by the reality of the concrete need to invest in our education system. The practical and strategic needs for an excellent school system in our country has never been greater!

Some essential STEM links:

50 Essential Twitter Feeds for STEM Educators

STEM Master Teacher Corps

STEM Education Opportunity Act (Hanna)

Change the Equation

Business Roundtable/TAP Coalition

US News STEM Solutions Conference June 17-19, Austin, Texas 2013

Innovate and Educate