Starving The Schools Of The 99

Jeff Bryant

Last week’s release of the report Starving America’s Schools: How Budget Cuts and Policy Mandates Are Hurting Our Nation’s Students set the stage for this week’s chorus line calling for the U.S. Senate to pass a bill to fund teachers’ jobs across the country.

We know school districts are laying off teachers by the thousands, and we know firing teachers reinforces all the things that are bad for the future of our children and our country: cutting early childhood education, increasing class sizes, narrowing curriculum, and shutting down programs and services that individualize the school experience to different student interests and abilities.

This week, Media Matters reminded us that the Senate is about to vote on the President’s plan to “prevent teacher layoffs and get more teachers back in our schools — 400,000 jobs.” Right on cue, Think Progress pointed out that the choice our senators face is to decide whether they are for “hundreds of thousands of American jobs or are they for letting millionaire and billionaires get away without paying their fair share.”

Senators must pass the bill. But while our political leaders decide between voting for the best interests of their constituents or their big-money donors, an arguably more important drama is playing out in the streets throughout America. As the Occupy Wall Street movement grows in force, the interests of public school teachers are being pushed to the head of the protests.

“It isn’t necessary to overthink the relationship between the Occupy Wall Street movement and education,” edu-blogger Tom Hoffman explains. Billionaires have a disproportionate influence on the future of our public schools.

Most of the elites who are determined to use “market forces” to cut public education and drive students and parents into privately operated charters went to private schools themselves and express little interest in providing the types of school experiences they benefited from to the general population. It’s not their private school backgrounds that make them hypocrites. What’s hypocritical is to seek out educational opportunities for yourself and your children, and then turn around and work systematically to deny those very same opportunities to others.

As Stan Karp of Rethinking Schools explains: “The same corporate elites and politicians who accept no accountability for having created the most unequal distribution of wealth in the history of the planet — and an economy that threatens the health and well-being of hundreds of millions — want to hold teachers accountable for their students’ test scores. They even want to use similar instruments to do it.”

There’s no doubt that turning public education into a test-driven enterprise is enriching the coffers of huge corporations, and that these companies then, in turn, use their wealth to have undue influence on policy makers.

To public school teachers, Wall Street’s ravaging of our economy mirrors all to well the attack on, in Karp’s words, “the universal public and democratic character of public schools” And the political will of our leadership to starve our schools is connected to the “corporate greed and inequality” that is ruining our economy.

The message that public school teachers bring to OWS is by no means lost on the young people who make up the majority of the demonstrators. Not only do they experience firsthand the loss of learning opportunities, but they are increasingly apt to, literally, get stuck with the bill. As education professor Willie Hiatt explains in an op-ed that appeared in Lexington, Kentucky media:

Our students are graduating into debt peonage (the average debt is $22,900, according to the Wall Street Journal) and joblessness as far as the eye can see. The next bubble to burst could be the nearly $1 trillion in student loans. Forgive protesters for connecting the dots: Wall Street crashed the economy, which wrecked state budgets, which meant higher tuition and fewer grants and scholarships, which led to more private loans. The home-equity decline means fewer families can pay for a liberal-arts education on second mortgages alone.

This is not the future that we promised to our children. Writing as a guest at Amanda Ripley’s blog, Marie Lawrence puts forth the idea that OWS is mostly about education:

We know that the Occupy Wall Street protest is partly a response to corporate greed, but I suspect it also reflects the disconnect between our aspirations and our reality. It feels like the engines of social mobility (namely education) are failing us.

(hat tip: Alex Russo)

The reality that we are starving our children’s means of getting an education and then saddling them with the costs, while at the same time making it harder and harder for them to get a job, is in stark contrast to what we’ve always been told the American Dream is all about. Teachers know this because they see it first hand. Students know it because the consequences come crashing down on them the hardest. It’s time for everyone else to get this.

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