The crisis in U.S. public education is beginning to read like something out of the theater of the absurd.
Now they are getting rid of summer school.
The Associated Press reported Sunday: “Across the country, districts are cutting summer school because it’s just too expensive to keep. The cuts started when the recession began and have worsened, affecting more children and more essential programs that help struggling students.” A survey found that over one third of the school districts in the country are looking at cutting out summer school starting this fall. And who are the students who will be hit hardest by this move? “Experts say studies show summer break tends to widen the achievement gap between poor students and their more affluent peers whose parents can more easily afford things like educational vacations, camps and sports teams,” said AP.
‘‘Most people generally think summer is a great time for kids to be kids, a time for something different, a time for all kinds of exploration and enrichment,’’ Ron Fairchild, chief executive officer of the National Summer Learning Association, told the news agency. ‘‘Our mythology about summer learning really runs counter to the reality of what this really is like for kids in low-income communities and for their families when this faucet of public support shuts off.’’
The same day this news was broadcast, the New York Times magazine ran a lengthy front page article about the ongoing efforts to confront the teachers unions and pictured classroom instructors as the impediment to improving the quality of education. At the same time, ironically, the cartoonist Jeff Danziger drew a classroom where two heavies are dragging a teacher out the door while proclaiming: “Good news, we figured out what was costing so much about public education.” In the background, someone is hooking up a video monitor.
It remains a mystery to me that an administration that can spend millions of dollars to bribe states into facilitating its quite controversial school “reform” programs can’t come up with the resources to stave off the pending mass layoffs of teachers. It can’t be that the White House has adopted the reactionaries’ tactic of starving public education until it falls to privatization. Education Secretary Arne Duncan appears to be genuinely alarmed at the economic crisis in public education.
“The cuts come even as President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan call for longer school days and shorter summer breaks,” observed AP. “But in many states, districts cutting summer school outnumber those using stimulus money to expand their offerings.” “At a time when we need to work harder to close achievement gaps and prepare every child for college and career, cutting summer school is the wrong way to go,’’ Duncan told reporters. “These kids need more time, not less.”
The question that arises in my mind is, why, at this point in time, go after the teachers unions and appear impotent in the face of the school budget slashers and the Neanderthals on Capitol Hill?
There is legislation before Congress to provide some emergency funding to diminish the impact of the teacher layoffs – now projected to be as many as 300,000 – but it’s not getting much media attention. While in New York last week, Duncan issued a plea for Congress to act but that hardly rated any mention in the major media, overshadowed as it was by the ongoing controversy about charter schools. The Administration can hardly be said to be building public support for Congressional action and it’s clear at least some of the Republicans will oppose it. Some politicians can become virtual Chicken Littles when it comes to the Federal budget deficit and church mice when the subject is the future of education.
At the risk of repeating myself I have to ask: why is it that the richest, most powerful nation on the planet, one that produces more and more billionaires each year and can spend one million dollars each on the soldiers it sends off to war, can’t afford to educate its kids?
Make no mistake about it, a campaign is underway to radically alter the country’s educational system – from kindergarten to graduate school – as surely as there is a coordinated effort to diminish or eliminate Medicare and Social Security. Starving schools is part of it. Right now, we’re being softened up for the kill.
“Economists have been keeping close watch on the states’ problems and now the chief economist of one of the country’s largest banks is weighing in,” said San Francisco television KGO report David Louie. He interviewed John Silvia, chief economist at Wells Fargo, who he says warned that “more pain is ahead.” It is time, Silva told Louie, for state and local government to live within its means. He then went on to talk about the sacrifices needed, observing that: “You think about the cost of educating a student at university compared to the tuition they’re paying. There’s a huge subsidy there.”
Subsidy? Since when was paying for public education a subsidy? Well, it’s easy to see where this is going. Lower income and minority students are already be priced out of the system by escalating tuition and the opportunities provided by the alternative community college system are being sharply curtailed.
“We’re going to have to look at state benefits for pubic workers. We’re going to have to look at retiree benefits,” said the banker. “How generous are these? Can these benefits be here in the 21st century?”
Two prominent California educators had something more worthy and relevant to say about the outlook for the next 100 years. Writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, Henry T. Yang chancellor of UC Santa Barbara, and chair of the Association of American Universities, and David Marshall, executive dean of the College of Letters and Science and dean of Humanities and Fine Arts at UC Santa Barbara, wrote, “If public education has been an engine of class mobility, helping to create a middle class, then it benefits the public more than it benefits individuals. Public education provides the educated workforce that is vital to the state’s economy, and it produces graduates with the creativity to sustain and renew California’s economic competitiveness. A UC liberal arts education prepares students to be citizens in 21st-century global California.”
“California’s elected leaders would do well to remember [George] Washington’s words about ‘a flourishing state of the arts and sciences.’ In today’s knowledge-based economy, the threat to the University of California and the state’s Master Plan for Higher Education is a threat to California’s prosperity and reputation. At a time when California’s economic future depends on producing more college graduates and better-educated citizens, the state must invest in public education. As Washington knew, both democracy and prosperity depend on it.”
We should be clear: education per se is not threatened. What is being undermined is the democratic concept of equal education, the idea that all children should start off on equal footing. Schools will continue to exist and quality instruction provided; the danger is that it will increasingly be available to those who can afford to pay for it and restricted for those who cannot. What the deficit hawks and some of the “reformers” are saying is: we can no longer afford to give quality education to all of y’all.
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