Memo From Austerity Land To Teachers Caring No Longer Counts

Jeff Bryant

Although it’s a bit early to know for sure, let’s hope that 2012 is the year that the economic policies known as “austerity” finally crashed and burned. Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman is certainly ready to bid adieu to austerity, writing in The New York Times this week that deep spending cuts leveled by state and local governments have proven to be “a major drag on the overall economy” and most probably have erected an “unnecessary” detour in “the road to self-sustaining growth.”

Nowhere have the ravages of austerity policies been more apparent and more ruinous than in public education, where deep budget cuts to schools have taken spending back to 2008 levels or earlier. What we’ve witnessed over the past two years is the biggest cut to education since the Great Depression, and it has had catastrophic and long-lasting effects on a generation of kids — beginning with the very youngest.

Austerity Is Eviscerating Early Childhood Education

A recent article in the Huffington Post recounted that, due to state budget cuts and roll-backs to early childhood programs, “roughly a quarter of the nation’s 4-year-olds and more than half of 3-year-olds attend no preschool, either public or private.”

Unbelievably, only three states currently offer prekindergarten to all 4-year-olds, even though “kids from low-income families who start kindergarten without first attending a quality education program enter school an estimated 18 months behind their peers. Many never catch up, and research shows they are more likely to need special education services and to drop out.”

Simultaneous to this article’s warning bell, the medical journal Pediatrics reported the results of a new study showing that “lack of adult support” in a child’s early years results in a build up of “toxic stress” that has life-long negative ramifications, including harmful effects to “learning capacities, adaptive behaviors, lifelong physical and mental health, and adult productivity.”

Writing at the Core Knowledge blog, Robert Pondisco commented that “the report should have a profound impact on educators and education policymakers because we now know that interventions in children’s lives — especially those who grow up in the difficult circumstances associated with poverty, homelessness, crime, malnutrition, and abusive households — “must start from Day One. Not Day One of school, Day One of life. Kindergarten is too late.”

The federal government’s attempt to alleviate some of the harm being done to the youngest Americans falls way short of what’s needed. The Obama administration’s recent debut of a $500 million Race to the Top grant competition for early childhood education has been widely dismissed as being “too little, too late” and being too reliant on reviving assessments of four-year-olds that were tried and abandoned by the Bush administration.

So there’s little doubt that the dreadful results of economic austerity have been equal to if not worse to education than they’ve been to the economy. But as the failure of economic austerity becomes a more widespread realization (hopefully) in the media, far less attention is being paid to another form of austerity that is at least as pernicious and potentially far more poisoning.

Austerity of the Soul

This other austerity — call it “austerity of the soul” — is most obvious when you look at how the people on the frontlines of public education — classroom teachers — are being treated. By now, for instance, anyone who is paying attention has heard about classroom teachers in the Chester-Upland, Pennsylvania school district who agreed to work without pay while their school budgets were being savaged by state officials and their resources and students were bled away to competitive charter schools.

One of the teachers, writing at Valerie Strauss’s blog at the Washington Post explains what should trouble everyone who cares about the welfare of children:

My heart bleeds for these kids. Many of these students have seen so much tragedy, loss, and rejection in 16 years than most will see in a lifetime. Now, when faced with the possibility of their schools closing they are hit yet again. In discussions between students regarding the possibility of being sent to other districts, a common response from students is, “They won’t do that; nobody wants us.” Heartbreaking.

These teachers refused to abandon the kids because they cared, unlike the hapless Italian cruise ship captain who recently abandoned ship before his passengers had fled to safety. So what do they get in return for their sacrifice?

The governor’s office has drafted a legislative proposal that calls for a state takeover of the distressed district. And if this state takeover follows the course of others in Pennsylvania, this will put a “school reform commission-type” oversight board in place which would likely cancel the teachers’ contracts and turn all the district’s schools into charters.

In other words, these teachers, despite their sacrifice, are more apt to get fired.

It’s important, by the way, to remember that the spending cuts that slammed Chester-Upland and other school districts like it were deliberately aimed at those schools. State lawmakers purposefully designed the budget cuts to draw the most money away from the poorest districts. And regardless of the rationale used justify such an act, this has been nothing but a despicable attack on people who are least capable of fighting back.

“People like you destroy morale”

Pennsylvania isn’t the only place where teachers are being treated badly. In Dallas, Texas classroom teachers are being forced to work longer days, with no extra pay, simply because local school officials, regardless of any objective evidence, decided that the district wasn’t getting its money’s worth from teachers.

Texas is, of course, a “right to work” state that prohibits unions from organizing on a mass scale to negotiate fair wages. But when one of the school officials made the comment that he didn’t feel the district was getting its “eight hours” worth from teachers, it prompted one teacher to speak out in an email: (emphasis added)

It is sad that individuals like you make this noble profession of teaching America’s future leaders more and more miserable each day. We already give more of our daily selves to the students and community than an average worker, including lawyers. I have been on the same salary step for 4 years, due to the fact that the district shifts it each time I am due for that coveted next step. I have received no substantial raise in 4 years. I am the father of 6 children and am the only income for my family. I am struggling to pay bills and just make it through life. We get dumped on by administration each day, cursed out by students, yelled at by parents, receive very little respect from the community, work long hours, and receive meager pay. But that’s okay. I see, on the other hand, that according to the Dallas CAD you have several nice properties in your name at [address deleted] (value $155,770), [address deleted] (value $187,310), and [address deleted] (value $225,330). I, on the other hand, am struggling to pay bills and just make it through life. I used to think I was doing something good for society. People like you destroy morale, beat us down into the ground, and make us wish we had been greedy enough to go into the business world as yourself.

For speaking his mind, the teacher, Joseph Drake, was summarily placed on leave. And although he has since been reinstated, the message is clear that how teachers feel about the way they’re being treated matters little to local politicians.

The Great Big Disconnect

Politicians at all levels love to talk in glittering generalities about how “valuable” good teachers are and how much they “matter.” In his recent Sate of the Union address, President Obama, with one of the Chester-Upland teachers sitting practically within arm’s length of his wife, called for an end to teacher “bashing” and exhorted them to “teach with creativity and passion” and “stop teaching to the test.”

All this sounds well and good — except it is completely disconnected to what is happening on the ground.

As Diane Ravitch recently wrote in her regular blog at Education Week, the President’s policies actually promote “teaching to the test” and do more to advance “teacher bashing” than quell it.

The truth is that if we want teaching with “creativity and passion,” we want to reinforce in teachers that act of caring. But teachers everywhere are being told that caring — whether it’s caring about the welfare of students or caring about work conditions — is no longer something that counts.

This discrepancy of what our political leaders profess and the deliberate actions they take produces an austerity of the soul that is at least as crippling to education as economic austerity has been. The reality is that in addition to closing its pocketbooks, America its hardening its heart to children and the people who care for and educate them.

As a Texas school superintendent, John Kuhn, recently wrote at the site of edu-blogger Anthony Cody,

“Accountability is only for the teachers in our modern republic. There is no visible or sustained pressure to address school funding, no pressure to address the inequity of resources or the unequal opportunity to learn that, while many are content to pretend it doesn’t exist, nonetheless devastates kids . . . . We [teachers] are supposed to accept poverty as “part of the deal.” There will be no hue and cry in opposition to inequality. And to that I can only say, “Why?”

Why indeed!

As John Dickerson recently observed at Slate.com, we’re likely heading into a Presidential election between two candidates — Barak Obama and Mitt Romney — who portray all the characteristics of “aloof men trading charges about who is more out of touch.” This stands in stark contrast to what’s needed for the times.

Writing at, coincidentally, In These Times, Thomas Franks notes that in the destructive wake of economic austerity what’s needed is an “idealism in the grand sense” that can rise above “our fallen economic world” and point the way to a better future.

If Obama can heed the times and break through with an idealistic message extolling the value of caring and the need to extinguish our current austerity of the soul, it could make all the difference.

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