As Public Schools Teeter on the Brink Our Leaders Look the Other Way

Jeff Bryant

Imagine taking your child to her first day of kindergarten and finding out that there won’t be a teacher for the class of 30 children until October. Imagine being a working family with two young children barely getting from paycheck to paycheck and getting told that your local school district is cutting back to a four-day school week. Or you’re a parent of an adolescent boy whose principal joy from attending school is sports or music and the school board decides that you have to start paying for those programs out of your own pocket. Or you’re a high school student hoping to attend college but your dreams are dashed when the foreign language and Advance Placement classes you need to qualify for higher ed are suddenly cut from your school.

These are not isolated incidents. All across the U.S., teachers are getting laid off by the thousands, class sizes are being enlarged, school calendars are being shortened, and highly popular academic programs that engage and challenge young learners are being cut. And if you doubt that this is truly a disaster for these communities, then ask the kids.

If you want to get a full scope of the education cutbacks slamming the nation’s schools, just go to this report from the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities and keep your pinky on scroll. What you’ll see are page after page of cuts to education being enacted in over 40 states and the District of Columbia. In Minnesota 9,400 students are having their college tuition grants cut . . . in Arizona, preschool is being eliminated for 4,328 children, and parents who want more than a half-day of kindergarten are going to have to pay for it . . . Hawaii is shortening the school year by 17 days. The carnage goes on and on.

Public schools everywhere are being hit by a perfect storm of drop-offs in state revenues and shortages of municipal funds stemming from declining home values and widespread joblessness. Although the federal government helped partially stave off this calamity by funding 266,000 education jobs in the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund from in the Recovery Act of 2009, most of those funds are gone and any remaining can’t be “banked” for programs and teaching positions in the 2011-12 school year.

Faced with a national disaster of such proportion, the customary response from the populace is to turn to our national leadership in Washington, DC. But if recent events are accurate indicators, the thought leadership on education inside the Beltway is preoccupied with nonsense.

Case in point, earlier this week President Obama appeared at a DC-metro area public school to proclaim his commitment to funding education. He also called for changes in the federal regulations that would make current No Child Left Behind mandates more flexible and less punitive, and he made another plug for his Race to the Top competitive grant program that rewards states for tracking student test scores, encouraging growth of charter schools, and paying teachers on the basis of their abilities to increase scores on high-stakes standardized tests.

The Republican reply to this declaration was an uninspired ho-hum and a rousing commitment to “take the time to get this right.”

What this amounts to is the captain and the first mate arguing about the shape of the rudder while the ship is about to slide over the falls.

Some can argue that the Federal government doesn’t really steer the boat of education policy because it has historically provided only a high single digit percentage of education funding. But that ignores how states have become increasingly more dependent on federal aid for schools.

The problem with education policy in DC doesn’t stem from a lack of bipartisanship. As teacher and edu-blogger Anthony Cody explains, “partisanship” is totally beside the point because “both Democrats and Republicans are pushing terrible ideas.”

On the uptown side of Pennsylvania Avenue, you have the opinion espoused by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan that schools have to adapt to a “new normal” and get with a dop-down mandate to “cut in order to invest.” This “cut in order to invest” rhetoric is opposed on the other end of Pennsylvania Ave. by the “cut in order to co-opt” crowd of Republicans who want to slash public education spending and co-opt public funding into private hands and business with gimmicks like school vouchers.

The problem with the “cut in order to invest” platform is that it supports by implication that the wave of cuts swamping our schools is both justified and necessary (it isn’t – more about that later). And it far too quickly dismisses things that mean a great deal to parents and school children – like class size, which Duncan recently called it a “sacred cow” – as unreasonable luxuries.

Furthermore, on the investment side, what the Obama administration is pushing is about as attractive as a hedge-fund heavily into home mortgage derivatives. The prospects just don’t look very good. Take the idea of paying teachers more for increasing test scores, commonly called “merit pay.” Just as Obama and Co. were re-emphasizing their belief in this approach, yet another study came out indicating that school districts that have tried this approach have found that it just doesn’t work. Furthermore, those states that insist on taking up merit pay have no idea how to pay for it.

In fact, if you want a poster person of “cut and invest” reform failures, look no further than Detroit public schools. Investments in charter schools and other measures have been a colossal failure. While cutbacks and other austerity measures have set off “a vicious cycle undermining even good schools.”

Concerning the “cut in order to co-opt” approach to education policy, this argument is based on two specious ideas that cutting public schools is both justified and necessary. Cuts to public schools, we are told, is justified because “America’s system of public education is broken.” As proof the “cut-to-co-opters” love to point to international comparisons that show that U.S. schools don’t measure up to other countries. But this analysis ignores two important inconvenient truths:

1. “In raw numbers, the United States produces many more high-achieving students than any other OECD nation [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development]. In both reading and math, the U.S. produces more high achievers than France, Germany, and the United Kingdom combined.” And “proportionally, Asian American students are the best readers in the world, and white Americans are bested only by Finns and New Zealanders.”

2. Of all the OECD countries participating in these international tests, the U.S. has, far and away, the highest percentage of students living in poverty. Once poverty is factored into the analysis, American students score near the top. In fact, students in schools with less than 10% of students on free and reduced lunch scored “higher than the overall average of any OECD country” on reading tests. Those in schools with 10% to 25% of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch lagged behind only Korea and Finland. countries.

Second, we are told by the “cut in order to co-opt” crowd cutting public schools is necessary because of a current “budget crisis” afflicting most states. This argument maintains that long term problems with bond indebtedness, pension obligations, and retiree health insurance require these drastic cuts in immediate, short term obligations. But this narrative also has little basis in fact. Again, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains:

A spate of recent articles regarding the fiscal situation of states and localities have lumped together their current fiscal problems, stemming largely from the recession, with longer-term issues relating to debt, pension obligations, and retiree health costs, to create the mistaken impression that drastic and immediate measures are needed to avoid an imminent fiscal meltdown.

The large operating deficits that most states are projecting for the 2012 fiscal year, which they have to close before the fiscal year begins (on July 1 in most states), are caused largely by the weak economy . . . . While these deficits have caused severe problems and states and localities are struggling to maintain needed services, this is a cyclical problem that ultimately will ease as the economy recovers.

Unlike the projected operating deficits for fiscal year 2012, which require near-term solutions to meet states’ and localities’ balanced-budget requirements, longer-term issues related to bond indebtedness, pension obligations, and retiree health insurance . . can be addressed over the next several decades. It is not appropriate to add these longer-term costs to projected operating deficits. Nor should the size and implications of these longer-term costs be exaggerated, as some recent discussions have done. Such mistakes can lead to inappropriate policy prescriptions.

While the Republicans push these two false notions that cutting public schools is both justified and necessary, they work in parallel to make sure more public funds are siphoned off into privatizing ventures like vouchers and charter schools that place government money outside the scope and control of democratic processes. For instance, in the above example from Arizona in which cuts were being made to early childhood and kindergarten education, the purpose was to, in part, direct those funds to expanding charter schools. In fact, many Republicans have declared that their goal is to turn all public schools into charters.

So this argument between “cut in order to invest” and “cut in order to co-opt” amounts to little more than sheer pabulum.The cuts being proposed by all sides in the debate are extraordinarily harmful to poor kids and local economies, while so-called policy “solutions” are generally not based on any factual evidence of what works.

Of course, there is a need to address structural problems with some American schools – problems that can’t be addressed by shoveling more piles of cash on them. Many schools are in terrible shape and need strong interventions. But what the education policy leadership in DC is concerned with is worse than unhelpful, it’s a diversion from the matter at hand.

What would be far more effective in the short term is for our elected representatives to actually represent the perspectives of people who are most affected by the financial crisis hitting American schools, namely: classroom teachers, school administrators, parents, and school kids. If they would just turn away from the Beltway chatter and listen to the voices of people on the ground who have the most at stake, what they would hear are urgent calls to “stop the cuts” and put more money into the things that have direct and immediate impact on what matters most in the everyday lives of schools and children.

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