Obama Administration Education Secretary Arne Duncan was in Peoria, Illinois, last week expressing alarm that some cities and states, facing a financial crunch are reducing – or contemplating reducing – the school week to four days. He also bemoaned the fact that nationwide as many as 300,000 teachers could be out of their jobs when the summer vacation is over. “We’re fighting to stop these massive layoffs,” he said. “We know school districts aren’t cutting to the fat, they’re cutting to the bone.”
A couple of weeks ago, Duncan told Congress that “literally tens of millions of students will experience these budget cuts in one way or another” and “Schools, districts, and states that are working so hard to improve will see their reforms undermined by these budget problems.”
Earlier this month, Duncan told reporters in Washington: “It is brutal out there, really scary. This is a real emergency. What we’re trying to avert is an education catastrophe.”
Why is it that I don’t sense any emergency in the public discourse? Why can I count on one hand the stories I’ve read in the major mass media over the past few month about it? Why do I think I should be reading searing editorials and public statements from politicians about this looming catastrophe?
I know some teachers, good ones, and they talk about it in alarming terms all the time; not just about the fact that they go from day to day wondering when and if a pink slip will arrive in their mail boxes but, more importantly about how the kids are being shortchanged.
Citing school cutbacks slated for the areas around the nation’s capitol, Nick Anderson reported recently in the Washington Post, “From coast to coast, public schools face the threat of tens of thousands of layoffs this year in a fiscal crunch likely to result in larger class sizes and fewer programs to help students in need.”
Anderson cited statistics gathered by the National Education Association (NEA) indicating 26,000 teachers face possible of layoffs in California, 20,000 in Illinois, 13,000 in New York, 8,000 in Michigan and 6,000 in New Jersey. He went on, “This month, the American Association of School Administrators reported that two-thirds of members surveyed cut positions this school year and 90 percent expect to do so in the coming year. The survey of 453 administrators also found that 62 percent anticipated raising class size, 34 percent were considering cancellation of summer school and 13 percent were weighing the possibility of a four-day school week.”
Sen. Tom Harkin (D – Iowa), who heads two Senate Committees that deal with education, said, “We must act soon. This is not something we can fix in August. We have to fix it now.” Harkin has proposed school aid legislation providing for $23 billion to help derail the threatened layoffs.
September is four months away and one thing is certain: the public is not be adequately alerted to the seriousness of the situation and mobilized to do anything about it. We would know far less about how critical things are in the schools had not students in California – where thing are really rough – set off nationwide protests about the cutbacks. And, as soon as that happened, on cue, voices popped up to declare that the protesters were deficient because they had no real analysis of the cause of the crisis and offered no solutions. The obvious response was: so what? Isn’t it the job of professionals in politics and government to provide those things?
Besides, the only sufficient prescription for overcoming the crisis is obvious: find the money.
What conclusion are we to draw from the fact that the richest and most powerful nation and most technologically advanced capitalist country cannot come up with the resources necessary to fund its educational system?
This is not a technical problem, or even a financial one. It’s political.
No sooner than Harkin issued his challenge than some on the political Right made it clear their just-say-no policy extends to schools and students as well. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who at one time held the post Duncan holds now, raised the question of the deficit. “I wonder from whose schoolchildren we are going to borrow this money, because we have a looming debt crisis in this country and we’ll need to debate this,” Alexander said. “We all want to help our children and our schools, but that is a deep concern.”
The stimulus measure enacted by Congress last year provided for $100 billion in emergency education financing and it is estimated that over 300,000 jobs were saved in the nation’s schools as a result. But that money is running out. The White House has thus far refused to go back to Congress with another stimulus proposal and the Republicans and their “blue dog” allies have made it clear they would fight such a measure in any case.
I had intended to write this week about swimming pools, prompted by the fact that the City Council in San Jose, California, had voted 10 to one reduce the city’s summer swim program to two pools. It is part of an effort to deal with a municipal shortfall of $116.2 million. The dissenting member proposed reducing the pay and benefits of City Hall janitors to keep the pools open (Good Lord!).
San Jose lies just south of San Francisco and is home to many of the people employed in nearby Silicon Valley. The area is very wealthy, being ground zero of the internet technology industry and headquarters of some of the most success companies in the industry. (It is home to billionaire Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman who seems to take delight in threatening welfare recipients with cutbacks.) But somehow not enough of the wealth created in the valley has found its way into the now hard hit areas of the region’s economy. They are closing the pools there just as the summer is about to begin.
I digress. But not really, for things like this are occurring across the nation. It fits right in with getting rid of school nurses, cutting back on physical education programs and eliminating music and art instruction.
Or, take adult education. “Here’s the scoop on our state’s latest naughty secret,” wrote Monterey, California, language teacher Ron Russell in California Progress Report April 6. “One by one, adult education programs are being eliminated and thousands of adult education teachers, administrators and students anguish as their schools close.”
“All of this is occurring with scant warning or consideration for the teachers, administrators and staff who have dedicated their lives to adult education or for the students who have invested time and money in the programs, which often seem to be their only hope for upward mobility,” wrote Russell, “Today, they are left to flounder while the most effective institution they have to learn our language and culture is shuttered.
“Paradoxically — owing to the recession and high unemployment — adult education enrollment was increasing, just as many classes or entire programs were decimated.”
We shouldn’t think this situation is unrelated to economic and social class. Public education didn’t just drop out of the sky. It is the result of an historic struggle to expand democracy and extend education to everyone – including the working classes and African Americans and other people of color. As with other gains, like security in old age (Medicare and Social Security), the very principle is under attack. “The news says we are watching the death of public education before our eyes,” wrote columnist Derrick Jackson in the Boston Globe April 6. “Detroit is closing more than 40 schools; Kansas City wants to close more than 40 percent of its school buildings. Other cities have been closing schools over the last decade. Boston avoided closings in its most recent budget deliberations, but still must slash custodial staff and postpone building repairs.” Jackson wrote. “In monetary terms, we have given up on millions of children,” Jackson continued, going on to quote Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford University professor who headed President Barack Obama’s education transition team: “I don’t think necessarily that public education is dead, but certain parts of it are dying. The programs of the 1960s and 1970s that helped make education more equitable were mostly eliminated in the 1980s and never put back.”
Oh, and spare me the pundits that call themselves part of the “radical center” who want any new immigration law to contain a “guest worker” clause, not for any huddled masses but for imported science and technical workers. In other words, identify what categories of workers we need most and then outsource their education to other countries. It’s delusional to think that in the near or long term this would be good strategy for the country or anything but an insult to the young women and men in our communities shortchanged by a decimated educational system.
What gets me about all of this is that the pundits and politicians, who forever extol the virtues of “free market” capitalism, are constantly telling us how important education is. It is forever presented to us as the answer to unemployment, the key to social mobility and the essential ingredient in maintaining U.S. “leadership” in the world. And yet the people who hold economic and political power in the country don’t seem to be able to act in their own self interest – or in the interest of the system. Faced with the looming educational catastrophe, they seem to shrug. Duncan is right; there is an emergency and it is scary. The question is: do the people who run things really care?
Michael J. Petrilli, who worked in the Education Department under President George W. Bush, told the New York Times that Harkin’s proposal could attract significant support. Even still, Petrilli said, “Is the federal government going to try to prop up states and districts forever. “If not, we’re just kicking the can down the road. Eventually, districts need to learn to live with less.” Now that’s an inspiring message.
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