Starbase Funding Wars

One of the programs mentioned in Folio Weekly’s April 10 Backpage Editorial, on the importance of education to JAX2025, is in danger of losing its funding. That program is Starbase. The programs’ director is Civil Air Patrol Maj. Gregory Stritch.

Starbase is aimed at helping academically at-risk students with their math skills. For two weeks during the year, students from about 10 elementary schools are bused to a portable classroom at the Florida Air National Guard 125th Fighter Wing at Jacksonville International Airport. Then the fun begins.

The students are taken through the aviation facilities and even board a plane (though they don’t take off). Beyond the fun, there’s class work, where math skills are applied to the fun things the students have seen, making aerospace the hook to learning math skills.

In fiscal year 2011-’12, Starbase served 37 classes — from two charter schools and 35 Title I public schools. Out of 927 students served, 87.4 percent are African-American, 6.7 percent are Hispanic, 5.5 percent are Caucasian and 
1 percent is Asian.

The Starbase program determines which classes will be included by Title I participation among students. Title I is the free and reduced lunch program in public schools. Most students in this program live below the poverty line and often in conditions that are not conducive to study. Most of them would never have contact with the type of technology the Florida Air National Guard Base presents. It’s the excitement of aviation that catches the students’ attention and encourages them to pick up the math skills taught at Starbase.

During the two weeks of FCAT testing, Starbase is open to kids from charter and parochial schools. Last week, San Jose Catholic School students attended. This week, students from Center Academy are attending.

How does this impact these students? Their math skills are measured both pre- and post-program as to how these skills would relate to the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FACT). The average improvements are:

2009-’10: 40.5 percent

2010-’11: 46 percent

2011-’12: 40.4 percent

Those increases come from a two-week program. The cost of Starbase in 2011-’12 was $225,000. At this level of funding, the cost to achieve these results was about $243 per student. For 2012-’13, the only Department of Defense allotment received was $200,000. This was a cut of $25,000 at a time the Starbase program was looking to expand. The budget was met only by cutting almost all non-salary related costs.

The addition of two instructors to run two classrooms simultaneously was planned for 2012-’13, creating smaller classes with more individual attention. The budget for this expansion was $375,000. The number of students projected for this year was 950. Based on current attendance, the number should reach 975 by the end of the school year. The total cost per student would increase to $385. Unfortunately, the additional funds never materialized. Would this expansion have been worth the cost?

If the new class arrangement provided an additional increase in the math skills and if the simultaneous classes would allow the program to reach more at-need students, it would be worth it.

At this point, the cost per student would decrease again. We can’t be certain of the outcome until the program expansion occurs, but the best guess is that these improvements would occur.

With two classrooms running, the number of classes served could increase to a minimum of 50, maybe more. Improving the scores of this many students improves many lives for years to come. While Starbase lasts two weeks, the lessons learned and the skills applied to future math classes last through graduation.

Unfortunately, the news is not good. I spoke to Frank Kozdras at the Florida National Guard. The funding for Starbase has been completely cut for 2013-’14 due to the sequestration. The Department of Defense has to put spending for items necessary to the military first. Kozdras has requested his superiors reconsider the cuts; however, it’s unlikely they will. If Starbase is to survive, another funding source must be found.

To survive at current service levels, Starbase requires a minimum of $225,000, plus transportation costs (to charter school buses). If we want to raise this amount of money at a level of $50 per gift, we’d need gifts from 4,500 people. If we received corporate gifts at $1,000 each, only 225 donors are needed; or gifts could be blended among fewer individuals and corporations to meet the needs.

Another alternative: Request the Duval County School Board fund the $225,000 program. This program is extremely effective at improving math skills among participants. This cost-effective program with proven results sounds like it may belong in the Duval County Public Schools (DCPS). The issue here is the same as with the Department of Defense and Florida National Guard: Many other urgent programs compete for limited resources.

A reasonable goal for Starbase would be to set up fundraising for $225,000 with the hope that the amount would be exceeded and the $375,000 goal could be met to increase the number of classes participating. Fundraising could be conducted through public service announcements, information booths, mailed requests to potential donors and applications for private and government grants.

The Chamber of Commerce considers education to be an important part of the community. To bring high-paying jobs to Jacksonville, the workforce must be highly educated, including employees with excellent math skills. This is where programs like Starbase come in.

One of the tenants of the JAX2025 vision is “prioritizes and achieves excellence in education — challenges, prepares and actively engages learners at every stage in life.” Starbase is one educational program that meets these needs. Improvements in math scores of more than 40 percent show that the program challenges, prepares and engages the young students who participate.

On April 15, a Department of Defense email said it was terminating funding for Starbase for 2013-’14. After running successfully for 20 years and serving more than 800,000 students nationwide, the program is now over. The only way to continue Starbase is either as a charter program through the School Board or through charitable fundraising.

What can you do to help? Write, call or email your Congressional representatives and senators to request federal funding be restored. If you’re in Duval County, contact your School Board member to request funding. If these measures fail, help by contributing funds directly to Starbase.

Your help may make the difference in providing an essential learning experience for Title I students.

Fouraker worked as a law firm paralegal specializing in municipal finance. He’s been in banking for 20 years and belongs to several 
civic organizations.