Schools Feel Effects of Weak Economy, High Fuel Prices as Classes Begin
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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Barbara Klein. A new school year is beginning in the United States. On our program today, we discuss some of the issues facing American education this year.
The first Monday in September is Labor Day in the United States. It marks the unofficial end of summer and a traditional signal that school is about to start.
But now public schools often begin sometime during August. They have different reasons for starting early.
The Tucson Unified School District in Arizona began classes on August eleventh. Communications Director Chyrl Hill Lander says the earlier start time makes it possible for students to take semester exams before winter vacation in December. She says the school district also wants to follow a calendar similar to that of the nearby University of Arizona.
Many schools in Virginia still open the day after Labor Day. But the public schools in Montgomery County, in the southwestern part of Virginia, began classes on August twentieth. Human Resources Director Mark Pashier says his county has been opening schools in August for at least the past eight years.
The main reason, he says, is the Standards of Learning tests that schoolchildren in Virginia take every spring. School officials want the students to have the most time to prepare for them -- which means starting the year before Labor Day.
The federal government plays an important part in American education. For example, the government provides money for research, early childhood programs and going to college. In fact, the credit crisis over the past year has increased the importance of federal student loans and other financial aid. Some private companies have left the student loan business.
The government also enforces federal laws against discrimination in schools. An example is a nineteen seventy-two law called Title Nine. Under that law, no one can be excluded on the basis of sex from any education program or activity receiving federal aid. One major effect was to expand sports programs for girls.
More recently, the Bush administration expanded student testing requirements as part of efforts to force public schools to improve.
Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act of Two Thousand One, President George Bush's education policy. He leaves office in January, but the law has no end date and does not require re-approval by Congress.
Federal involvement in education policy has grown but still remains limited. There is no national education system, no requirements for what to teach. Education has always been considered mainly a local issue.
Each state and local government has its own rules and guidelines. This explains why school calendars are different across the fifty states.
The weak economy and rising prices for goods and services will be producing some noticeable changes this year.
Most states require public schools to provide transportation to and from school for students who need it. But high fuel prices have been cutting into school budgets. Some students will have to walk farther to get the bus because of service reductions. Others will have to walk or ride their bike to school or make other transportation plans.
To save money on bus fuel, some districts are lengthening the school day and having students go only four days a week instead of five. The Maccray school district in Minnesota is trying a four-day week beginning this school year. The superintendent says the move should save the district at least sixty-five thousand dollars in transportation costs.
The American Association of School Administrators asked school chiefs across the country what their districts were doing about these high costs. The group released the survey results in July. Fourteen districts reported moving to a four-day school week. Eighty-two others said they were seriously considering it.
Also, more than two hundred districts reported reducing their use of heat and air conditioning in schools to save money. Ninety-five others said they were considering it.
The cost of food service is another issue for schools. The problem is not just higher food prices but also higher prices for plastic goods made from oil. The School Nutrition Association says many administrators decided at the end of the last school year in June to increase the price of school lunches.
A survey in May and June of this year found that about one hundred fifty districts are raising meal prices by an average of sixteen percent. About sixty districts had already increased lunch prices during the two thousand seven-two thousand eight school year.
High oil prices, the weak economy and the housing market collapse are also having other effects. Stores launched back-to-school specials earlier this year, giving parents a chance to search longer for lower prices. More families than last year planned to buy online -- a way to compare prices and save fuel.
In July the National Retail Federation, a business group, released findings from its yearly survey of back-to-school spending. The survey found that spending levels for clothing, shoes and school supplies would remain about the same as last year.
But many parents planned to spend some of their tax rebate check on electronics like computers and cell phones. Tax rebates went out to millions of Americans as a way to pump money into the economy.
The survey found that the average family with school-aged children would spend about six hundred dollars on school-related purchases this year. The estimate was thirty dollars higher than last year.
But back-to-college spending was expected to drop by seven percent, after five years of strong sales. The survey also found that fifty-four percent of college students were saving money by living with their parents this year. Just below fifty percent lived at home last year.
The National Retail Federation predicted a combined fifty-one billion dollars in back-to-college and back-to-school spending this year.
Across the United States the legal age to drink alcohol is twenty-one. But some college and university presidents have recently signed a statement. The statement says: "It's time to rethink the drinking age. Twenty-one is not working." At least one hundred twenty-eight presidents have signed it so far.
The statement calls on elected officials to support a public debate over the twenty-one year old drinking age. It also calls on officials to "invite new ideas about the best ways to prepare young adults to make responsible decisions about alcohol."
In nineteen eighty-four Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act. The law threatened states with a ten percent cut in federal highway money if they set their drinking age lower than twenty-one.
The college presidents say a culture of dangerous and secretive "binge drinking" has developed and often takes place off campus. They say adults under twenty-one have the right to vote, serve on juries and join the military "but are told they are not mature enough to have a beer."
The statement does not say what the legal drinking age should be. But many of the presidents who signed it said they think people should be permitted to drink at eighteen.
Groups opposed to lowering the drinking age quickly criticized the statement signed by the college and university presidents.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that the current drinking age has reduced traffic deaths involving drivers eighteen to twenty-one by thirteen percent. Its latest study says alcohol-related traffic deaths last year among all age groups were down almost four percent from the year before.
The group Mothers Against Drunk Driving says the twenty-one year old drinking age has saved twenty-five thousand lives since nineteen eighty-four.
The International Association of Chiefs of Police also expressed strong opposition to the idea of lowering the drinking age. It says drivers between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one are involved in fifteen percent of all alcohol-related traffic deaths. It says lowering the drinking age would only raise that number.
Some colleges are promising stronger enforcement of alcohol policies this year in an effort to reduce drinking-related problems.
One reason students may drink a lot is because they think everyone does it. Yet researchers find that students in general drink less than their friends think. Some schools, including the University of Virginia, have found that one way to reduce drinking is to present students with the facts.
Our program was written by Nancy Steinbach and produced by Caty Weaver. I'm Barbara Klein. And I'm Steve Ember. Transcripts, MP3s and podcasts of our programs can be found at voaspecialenglish.com. Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.