Public Education’s ‘Shock Doctrine Summer’ Rolls Out, Part 2

Jeff Bryant

With the glow of high school graduations still lingering in many American families, and analysts predicting that an“economic recovery” is on the way, this is a time when you’d expect to start hearing more positive news about the state of US public education. You’d be wrong.

In fact, not only is there no financial “recovery” in the offing for most public school systems, school year 2013 will likely be harder on our children and youth enrolled in pre-K-12 education.

Thus far, our country’s political leadership is coming up short in addressing the calamity befalling our children and young people. But for progressives, the way forward is becoming clearer, if we choose to lead the way.

What Is Happening?

Last year’s “Shock Doctrine Summer,” rolled out much in the same way school year 2013 appears to repeat, with a litany of deep education cuts and increased pressure to transfer taxpayer funds for public schools to private interests.

This one-two punch to public schools emulates all too well the “Shock Doctrine” Naomi Klein described, in which catastrophes, in this case man made, are turned into opportunities for business interests to impose economic control on the public well-being.

For an account of the financial strife inflicted on public K-12 schools in 2012, folks at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities have the numbers.

In 2012, state governments, which account for about half of all funds spent on K-12 schools, generally went cut-happy to see how low they could go in slashing the amount of money spent on every child in their schools:

    • At least 27 states cut per student funding by more than 2 percent.
    • 19 states cut per student funding by more than 5 percent.
    • 4 states — IL, KS, TX, WI — cut spending levels per student by 10 percent or more.

Although state lawmakers blamed these cutbacks on the recent recession, the fact is that the cutting frenzy these legislators engaged in went back in time to pre-recession levels:

    • Almost two-thirds of states provided less per-student funding for K-12 education in 2012 than they did in 2008.
    • In over one-third of states, per student funding is 10 percent or more below pre-recession levels.
    • Four states — AZ, CA, HI, SC — reduced funding by more than 20 percent from pre-recession levels.

What these severe budget cuts produced on the ground was less access to public pre-K programs for poor children, reduced course offerings to students, fewer opportunities for students to engage in extra curricular activities and vocational pursuits, and larger and larger class sizes.

As evidence of the strife, the American Association of School Administrators found, in its annual mid-year survey of school leaders, that in order to adapt to financial constraints imposed by state governments:

    • More than half of schools increased class size.
    • 35 percent reduced nonacademic programs such as after school and Saturday enrichment programs.
    • Nearly one third reduced elective courses — such as foreign languages, social sciences, and arts classes — required for graduation. (emphasis mine)
    • Over half deferred textbook purchases.
    • Nearly one fifth reduced “high cost course offerings” including occupational education (shop, tech, vocational, etc.)
    • 40 percent delayed instructional improvement initiatives.
    • Nearly half reduced instructional materials.
    • Almost 30 percent eliminated field trips.
    • 29 percent reduced extra-curricular activities.
    • 22 percent eliminated summer school.

These kinds of cuts do direct harm to students. For instance, in New York, according to an article in The New York Times, more high school students aren’t able to get into the colleges of their dreams — not because they can’t afford them — but because “school districts are being forced to cut electives, remedial tutoring, foreign languages, and other programs and services” students need to gain admission. The same thing is happening in California.

It’s Only Going To Get Worse

Unfortunately, the outlook for school year 2013 looks bleaker still. The analysis by CBPP, referenced above, shows that even though states’ fiscal conditions are improving, their investment in the public continues to be far short of what’s needed. In fact, given current state budgets, “it would take seven years” for states to “get back on a normal track” to funding levels for public services.

The CBPP analysis concludes, “revenues probably won’t come close to what states need to restore the programs that they cut during the recession unless states raise taxes, at least temporarily, or receive additional federal aid while the economy slowly recovers.”

The survey results from AASA, cited above, flesh out this bleaker picture. School leaders say that in 2013 they anticipate more negative hits to the direct services they offer to students, including class size increases, reduced elective courses and programs, deferred purchases of textbooks and instructional materials, and reductions to field trips and extracurricular experiences.

Another financial head slap to public schools in 2013, according again to the CBPP, is that states have cut formulas that determine funding allocations to schools.

States typically distribute most of funding for public schools through formulas that guide how states fund schools unable to raise adequate revenue locally. Cuts to these formulas have very large consequences for local school districts because these districts have to either scale back the educational services they provide, raise more revenue to cover the gap, or both. The result is particularly deep cuts in aid to districts with high concentrations of low-income students.

So not only will state funds be inadequate across the board in the coming school year, the drop-off will undoubtedly hurt the poorest schools the most.

The Education Shock Doctrine Comes To Philadelphia

If you want to see first-hand results of the Education Shock Doctrine, look at Philadelphia.

In school year 2012, Pennsylvania’s conservative governor Tom Corbett and state legislators enacted severe school funding cuts and unfair state funding formulas that have traumatized school districts across the state.

In the meantime, while these state lawmakers curtailed spending on neighborhood schools, they ramped up significantly the amount of funds transferred to private education providers such as cyber and charter schools, which have shown scant evidence of raising achievement.

The result of this one-two punch to public schools has been particularly crushing to Philadelphia where the local school district has been “driven to the brink of insolvency,” according to a recent article appearing in AlterNet.

As detailed in another article “Who’s Killing Philly Public Schools? Underfunded. Overburdened. About to be sold for scrap, ” by Daniel Denvir in the City Paper, an appointed Chief Recovery Officer, a position pressed upon the district by state legislators, has announced a plan to “shutter 40 schools next year, and an additional six every year thereafter until 2017.”

The design of the plan is to push the remaining 20 to 30 Philadelphia schools into “achievement networks” that public and private groups would “compete” to manage. But the admitted desired result of the plan is to ensure that “charter schools teach an estimated 40 percent of students by 2017.”

“What is being proposed, in effect, is ‘charterizing’ the whole district,” explains former Philadelphia School District superintendent David Hornbeck, “when there is a lot of evidence that at best [charters] have no positive effect on student achievement, and there is a lot of evidence they cost more.”

Enter The False Promise Of School Choice

The combination of this enormous disinvestment in public schools with a tidal wave of privately provided “alternatives” — including tax credit and voucher programs, charter schools, online academies, and cyber schools — is increasingly being sold to the American public as “school choice.”

The “choice” in this case is that political leaders are choosing to gut traditional public schools financially to the point where they can no longer offer the well-rounded education parents prefer, all the while these same leaders erect and help fund other types of schools that are not completely under the public’s purview, so parents have to consider alternatives to their neighborhood schools.

Does that sound like real “choice” to you?

Choice Does Not Equal Equity

So far the political parties vying for our votes address the Education Shock Doctrine with little more than political gamesmanship.

As Kevin Welner, co-director of the National Education Policy Center, recently wrote, the differences between how the two parties address education appears to be whether we proceed slowly along the same destructive course or whether we “step on the accelerator even harder.”

Welner explains that with the two parties committed to the new “status quo” of “one-upping each other” in a game of “school choice mania,” what we’ve come down to amounts to “experimenting on the nation’s most vulnerable children” based on a rationale that amounts to little more than “why not try this.”

Progressives should know better. We know that a market based approach that forces people to compete against each other for essential goods and services invariably breeds inequity. Where has that not ever been the case?

And progressives know that real education reform must be based on increasing our children’s opportunities to learn, not constricting them with deeper and more damaging rounds of cuts. That means a renewed campaign at all levels to invest in the well being of children and young people with increased direct services that must include pre-K funding, class size reductions, a well-rounded curriculum, and opportunities for individualized education.

The Very Serious People may claim that investing in our children and young people is just more of the “status quo.” But the definition of “status quo” is what we have right now. And what we have right now is a pathway to catastrophe.

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