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This year we asked students to send us an original, unpublished, 800-word essay detailing how their education has been compromised by budget cuts and tuition hikes.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 Nation Institute for its generosity in making this contest possible. The Editors

The cooking class at Cherry Hill East High School may not catch the eye of most kids, but for me it embodies a passion and the career I plan to pursue. The cooking classroom has three ovens, a few spatulas and skillets, but it does not have any bread, eggs, flour or oil. The dear old bespectacled teacher, always draped in a cook’s apron, talks about the five "mother" sauces. She has inspired me not only to cook a wide range of delicacies but to realize that cooking is both an art and a science. But unfortunately, she is being forced to retire. This is not my only loss from the budget cuts. Like so many other schools in this country, my high school is now confronted with all kinds of shortages and deficiencies, ranging from fewer teachers and larger classrooms to inadequate technology and equipment.

Insufficient funding means fewer teachers. What is the effect of this? A quiet class of fifteen students, where teachers personally attend to your requirements and problems, suddenly becomes a rowdy class of over thirty where the teacher spends the first ten minutes getting everyone quiet. The task of teaching gets drowned in the disciplining process, and teachers themselves can become apathetic and despondent, resulting sometimes in pedagogical disasters. Just days before the National Latin Examination, our poor Latin teacher was obliged to double the number of her students and our review was left severely incomplete.

One visible sign of the budget cuts is the depletion of material resources. Working on a slow five-year-old computer that cannot even download the latest software is not only frustrating but debilitating: we just can’t get the requisite work done in time. Our library is noisy: just half of it has been renovated, while the other half—bleak rows of poorly stacked shelves and rotting desks—remains undisturbed in its decay. The small 4 x 2 feet tables are crowded with kids, and there usually isn’t a librarian around to offer them any necessary help. The temporary librarian, middle-aged with wrinkling forehead, herself looks lost in some helpless quandary. The crumpled old books are sometimes unreadable. One does not have a cover, another has fifty pages missing, while others have scribbles and profanities on their pages. The library doesn’t have books to do research from—only online databases that are outdated by four to five years.

There is one particular effect of the budget cuts that upsets me deeply. I regard the summer as a huge gap in the school year: it is a time that could be productively used. In the past, our school has hosted remedial classes in reading and writing, and other classes such as history or math that could be used by students to get ahead. Now we have nothing—just a long and empty summer vacation. It is much harder to study on your own without some proper guidance. Of course, it’s great having time off to relax and have fun. But the truth is that in Japan, Germany and many other countries, the summer break is not nearly so long; and kids in those countries are going to be way ahead of us. Because of these budget cuts the summer courses are put into the regular school year, which reduces the number of electives we can take.

When the government considers budget cuts for education, it should consider the long-term implications. It’s one thing to reduce funding for roads and buildings, or even for military spending. But in reducing funding for education, we are lowering the standards of our own future generation, making them less productive as future workers and harming their ability to contribute in positive ways to our society and our world.