January 27, 2012

Starve The Beast, Starve The Children: An Education Crisis

RIP Public Education - photo by Sasha Kimel

An article on CNN’s Schools of Thought blog titled – My View: An Education crisis that never should have happened - paints a gloomy financial picture for public education, but conversely shines a much needed light on the dedicated men and women who educate future generations.

The article was written by Sara Ferguson, a teacher in the Chester Upland School District, who was in attendance during President Obama’s 2012 State of the Union address. Ferguson says the financial trouble in the Chester Upland school district is a result of elected officials attempting to balance budgets by cuts to education.

At the root of the problem in my district and in yours is an inequitable system of funding public education. As I write this, politicians across the country are trying to balance their budgets on the backs of students. They are making excuses for not giving students and teachers the tools they need to be successful. Meanwhile, too many of our school districts are nearing a fiscal crisis which threatens their students’ academic future.

It has become clear to me there are politicians in this country, mostly but not all Republican, that have become hostile towards public education. They view it through the same lens they view things like Social Security, Medicare, universal healthcare, etc. To them it’s all socialism and an affront to capitalism and the free market. They say government-run programs result in a lackluster product because it takes away competition, choice and the profit motive. Through use of selective causation they conclude that this results in lack of motivation and ultimately corruption. They believe people cannot be motivated to do a good job when profits and competition are removed from the equation. They believe private, for-profit companies should take over these programs if we are to foster competition and fuel motivation.

This is a tired and worn out narrative from the Right, that everything can be solved by competition, freedom of choice and a free market. Except, if left to the free market, many poor students would get a worse education or no education at all because it simply wouldn’t be profitable enough for the shareholders. You might respond to that by saying poor students already get a worse education but this is due to the original problem, politicians attacking public programs and cutting funding to them, otherwise known as “starve the beast“. But in this case it is starving the children of a quality education and is robbing this country of a productive future.

In January … Pennsylvania’s Governor Tom Corbett cut $860 million in state funding, which meant a 14.4% drop in funds for Chester Upland. Cuts like these disproportionately hurt school districts that are already financially distressed. On top of that, state funding was cut most dramatically in the districts that needed it most.

In response to these cuts by a Republican Governor and his administration, the teachers decided to continue teaching the students because it was the right thing to do even though they faced the possibility of not being paid. This is a slap in the face to the right-wing narrative of the free market and the profit motive, not to mention the role of unions.

We then learned that our school district did not have enough money to make payroll. The 204 teachers and 64 support staff in Chester Upland were told we might not receive our paychecks.

With the leadership of our union, though, we came together and made a decision. We had a responsibility to provide our students with the education they deserve. We decided to keep working as long as we could make ends meet.

We need to stop blaming public education and teachers. We need to stop pretending that cuts to education will somehow work out in the end. We should not be balancing budgets by cutting funding to education and ultimately the future strength of this country. The United States of America is the wealthiest nation on Earth. It is appalling that funding cuts, like the cuts made to the Chester Upland School District, happen in a country that has so much wealth. Where are our priorities? Do we really believe, for example, keeping the top tax bracket at its current level – for fear of the dreaded wealth redistribution – is more important than educating future generations?

The “starve the beast” strategy has never resulted in fixing weak and broken systems. In has only served to weaken them further. Our elected officials need to recognize that we have many excellent teachers that care about doing a good job. These teachers, and the children they educate, deserve to have the resources necessary to do that job.

dks

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photo by Sasha Kimel via Flickr

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