by Daniel Denvir
America’s K-12 schools are being hollowed out, dismantled and converted to private management. It’s the ultimate outsourcing of our children’s futures.
In Philadelphia, one of America’s largest school districts, layoff notices were recently delivered to 3,859 teachers, aides, administrators and other staff. In Chicago, 850 teachers and staff are being let go. Nationwide, a staggering 335,100 teachers and other local public school jobs have been lost from June 2009 to May 2013, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
It’s easy to blame those layoffs on the sour economy, but that’s only part of the story. The education “reform” movement, a code for privatizing schools, has been using the economic crisis to push its agenda. After the public schools have their budgets and staff cut, private management companies offer to come in and save the day.
Thirty-five states have reduced education funding since 2008, according to a September 2012 report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Seventeen states cut more than 10%. Under Governor Rick Perry, Texas reduced state funding to public education by a full 25% between 2002 and 2012.
Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett has cut nearly $1bn. Now, the state-run School Reform Commission is demanding $133m in union concessions, mainly from Philadelphia teachers – even though higher pay is necessary to attract the most talented to the neediest districts. Philadelphia teachers already make less than counterparts in more well-to-do suburbs.
There is a profound disconnect between tragedies playing out in school rooms nationwide and a national political conversation dominated by a “reform” agenda that seeks to remake public schools in the image of corporate America.
The so-called school reform movement declares that public education has failed American students. But in reality, it is the policies of brutal austerity, relentless standardized testing, and teacher bashing that ensure failure – and promote privatization as the only solution. And so the beast is starved: fewer resources, fewer teachers, fewer aides to make schools safe and a worse education. Better yet, the more teachers employed in typically non-union charters, the weaker the political movement to defend public schools.
The budget crises in Philadelphia, Chicago and other cities is decades-long in the making. But it is most recently the product of callous, Tea Party-inspired policymaking at all levels of government. The stimulus package saved many education jobs, but it was too small to staunch the shortfalls inflicted by economic crisis and exacerbated by austerity-minded state governments. And although state tax revenues are finally tilting upward, the sequester promises federally induced pain. Title I funding targeted to schools serving the poorest students will be cut by $725.8m, according to the US department of education.
Federal and state cuts have also redistributed the burden of funding education from the state to local governments, a sharply regressive move that forces the poorest school districts to raise taxes on poor residents who can least afford to pay.
Meanwhile, Wall Street profits are up, in some part thanks to millions in transfers from broke school districts and local governments. In Philadelphia, the school district has lost $161m to interest-rate swap deals signed with Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and Wells Fargo. They went sour after the very same banks pushed the economy into oblivion. As a result, the cash-strapped schools must borrow more money from, well, the banks.
The motivations animating the self-described reform movement include ideological fervor, pecuniary self-interest and a sincere desire to help. But all have persistently sought to take advantage of budget crises to further their agenda. Last week, the Philadelphia City Paper uncovered a secret poll recommending that Governor Corbett exploit the Philly schools crisis to attack the teachers union – in an effort to boost his flagging reelection prospects.
The gamesmanship is part of an ongoing battle over who will control public education dollars, and to what end. Self-described reformers propose busting teachers unions, increasing the stakes of high-stakes standardized tests and pushing districts to spend a growing share of their shrinking budgets on privately managed charters.
They have the support of the very same Republicans who champion school budget cuts and also of “reform” Democrats such as President Obama. His Race to the Top initiative has doubled down on No Child Left Behind’s failures: states and school districts are being pushed harder to expand charters and to judge teacher and school success by deeply flawed test scores.
In Pennsylvania, the secret poll advocating an attack on teachers was funded by the reform group PennCAN, one of many in a rapidly expanding galaxy of well-financed lobby groups campaigning for increased private management and anti-union measures. The movement is funded by wealthy donors and foundations, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wal-Mart fortune-derived Walton Family Foundation.
Privately managed charter schools have, alongside teacher contracts and school closings, become an emotionally charged point of contention. Some charter schools are fantastic. But a charter school movement that seeks a wholesale conversion of school districts to private management, and that opposes oversight of the many corrupt or academically mediocre schools, poses an existential threat to public education.
This crisis, which has persisted as disparate local debates, may soon coalesce into a national conflict. The schools hurt the most are those that have long been underfunded, segregated institutions struggling to educate poor black and Latino students. But today’s cuts are reaching into working- and middle-class towns and suburbs, and turning schools across the country into dreary, boring, arts and creativity bereft boot camps for standardized test preparation.
In Seattle, hundreds of students and teachers refused to take or administer high-stakes standardized tests. This after Atlanta schools superintendent Beverly Hall and 34 others were indicted as part of a investigation that concluded a culture that accepted “no exceptions and no excuses for failure to meet targets” was at the root of widespread test cheating.
In New York, mayoral candidates have made the criticism of Michael Bloomberg’s school reform agenda a centerpiece of their campaign. In Philadelphia, mass student walkouts have protested the “doomsday” budget and hunger strikers are pledging to refuse food until more than 1,200 aides critical to school safety are rehired.
Most importantly, striking Chicago teachers created a new model for defending public schools in 2012. Educators received widespread public support after building strong community coalitions, and making it clear they fought not only for parochial job interests but also for fair funding, rich curricula and for schools as community institutions.
The reform movement perceives economic crisis as an opportunity to exploit for political gain. But the movement may have overplayed its hand, as increasing numbers of students, parents and teachers identify education austerity with the bipartisan prophets of “school choice”.