Throughout the United States, the nation’s public school system is being savaged by budget cuts that will make a mockery of federal legislation designed to reduce the achievement gap between children in low-income and high-income districts.
In Detroit, the school district has been told by the state to close half of its schools to close a $347 million deficit, leading to high school classes that could contain as many as sixty students.
Providence, RI just handed out pink slips to its nearly 2,000 teachers to reduce its deficit (although, in an astonishing feat of creative accounting, most—but not all—of the teachers are expected to be rehired); and Austin, Texas, may do the same in a response to a ten percent reduction in state funding. And in thousands of school districts throughout the country, teachers are being fired, sports and arts programs are being shut down, AP classes are being canceled, and class size is going through the roof while state and local governments radically cut education funding to balance their budgets. Make no mistake about it, these budget cuts will have a disproportionate effect in the poorest school districts, where parents depend on schools to impart skills which, because of educational background or language issues, they often lack.
You cut arts and science programs in a upper-middle-class school district, parents will compensate by finding private tutors or funding additional classes through the PTA. In poor neighborhoods, once such programs are gone, they are gone for good.
You can squeeze the teachers in poor districts all you want to produce magical results on test days; as opportunities to give students individual attention and special training in arts and science disappear, the test score gap will grow wider, the dropout rate will increase, and college admission from such districts will plummet. What makes this a bitter pill to swallow that the dream these budget cuts will destroy was one nurtured by a Republican president, George W. Bush. Never mind that the dream was based on false data from the Houston school district; never mind that it was used by politicians, business leaders and the media to divert attention from confronting sources of inequality outside the school system. It is still held that every child in America has the right to a great education and an opportunity to attend college if they take advantage of that opportunity. Now that very dream is in tatters, not just because of the decision elected officials made to cut public school budgets, but because of the decision they didn’t make: to TAX THE RICH.
Make no mistake about it, in every state where these budget cuts are being made the vast majority could have been avoided if taxes were raised on the wealthiest five percent of the population, a group which controls nearly 40 percent of national income! Yet in state after state throughout this country, as well as in Congress, such taxes were declared “off limits” by politicians of both parties.
Let us be very blunt about the consequences of this choice. In the midst of the worst economic crisis in modern U.S. history, our political leadership has decided to exempt the very wealthy from sacrifice while tragically weakening the one avenue our society has identified for reducing inequality in the nation—our public schools.
Not only is it profoundly immoral to impose hardship on the weakest and most vulnerable members of our society, targeting schools for such huge cuts does violence to the very ideal of equality of opportunity which once used to unite liberals and conservatives.
If the only schools that can function well are in communities where parents have the resources to compensate for the budget cuts, then we are basically creating a social order where children will remain in the social position of their parents into the next generation, and where poor and working-class children are doomed by inferior training to be a servant class for the rich, if they are lucky enough to find jobs at all.
I don’t know about you, but this sounds more like the ancien régime in France or pre-revolutionary Russia than the country which Abraham Lincoln once praised “for lifting artificial burdens off the shoulders of men.” The American Dream is dying before our eyes. Will we have the courage to rescue it?
Mark Naison Mark Naison is a Professor of African-American Studies and History at Fordham University and Director of Fordham’s Urban Studies Program. He is the author of three books and over 100 articles on African-American History, urban history, and the history of sports. His most recent book, White Boy: A Memoir, was published in the spring of 2002. Republished with permission from The History News Network.