We’re pleased to announce the winners of The Nation‘s fifth annual Student Writing Contest. This year we asked students to send us an original, unpublished, 800-word essay detailing how their education has been compromised by budget cuts and tuition hikes. We received hundreds of submissions from high school and college students in forty-four states. We chose one college and one high school winner and ten finalists total. The winners are Amanda Lewan of Michigan State University and Melissa Parnagian of Old Bridge High School in New Jersey. The winners receive a cash award of $1,000 and the finalists, $200 each. All receive Nation subscriptions. Many thanks to the IF Stone Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute for its generosity in making this contest possible. The Editors

Decades of politics, partisanship, wasteful spending and loopholes created the fiscal crisis New Jersey is currently facing. After a series of failed financial reforms by previous governors, Chris Christie was voted into office on a platform of economic responsibility.

Since then, New Jersey has never been the same.

Severe budget cuts to schools have hindered education all across the state, penalizing the only group of people who did not contribute to the deficit: the students. Yet, as a generation at the mercy of the educational system, we see our very futures being debated.

When New Jersey Governor Chris Christie allotted my school several million dollars less than it anticipated, a myriad of services and positions were slashed. At least in the case of my school district, the reduced budget not only cut out the frivolous—it eliminated the essential.

Dozens of teachers will lose their jobs in the next fiscal year; custodians will be limited and many people in supervisor positions will be reassigned to lower-paying jobs. Most non-varsity sports teams will be cut. A group of elective classes will no longer be offered. My school cannot move forward as a learning institution, due to lack of funds—we must suffer with old textbooks and painfully out-of-date computers

Moreover, the late buses have been cut; students must now wait hours after school for transportation home, even if their activity ended just forty-five minutes after the final bell. Such a move will mean less time for study and more time idling on school grounds, leading to delinquency. Students in need of extra help may choose to forgo the wait altogether in order to be home on time. Reducing resources available to students outside the classroom undermines the whole educational process.

The biggest thing to come out of Christie’s plans, however, was the counter-movement. The picketing and protests catalyzed the idea that students should have a say in issues that concern them. I was there for the statewide walkout. I saw those students begging to be heard.

I saw Christie later dismiss the definitive act as a case of "spring fever."

With a combination of tax hikes and pay cuts, my district was able to keep the high school schedule the same. Yet my education can never reach its full potential under such a financial restraint. As a consequence of the lower budget, all field trips have been eliminated. How can students see that what they learn in the classroom relates to real life under such a ludicrous rule?

My history textbook copyrighted in 1999 shows a compromise in education. My English textbook with no cover shows a compromise in education. Running out of white copy paper shows a compromise in education. A computer that takes ten minutes to turn on shows a compromise in education.

On my list of areas where New Jersey could reduce spending, education is nowhere near the top. By limiting the quality of instruction, our success in the future has also been limited. The students of today will be less educated because there will be fewer opportunities available to them.

And whom can posterity blame for this?

Leaders like Chris Christie, who are refusing to recognize the importance of providing youth with the best instruction possible. By doing so, they are making the future a little less bright, a little less exciting, and graduates a little less prepared.

My education has certainly been compromised by that mindset, and I can only pray that leaders in Trenton and all throughout the United States rethink that erroneous perspective.

In the meantime, it is up to me and my fellow students to navigate an educational system damaged by one of the biggest recessions of all time.