Friday, January 17, 2014

Right-wing persists in pushing charter schools and cuts to education budgets

By Marc Jampole

When it comes to education, it seems as if the right is more interested in ideological posturing than in actually helping to give children the knowledge and skills they need to live in the modern world, have rewarding careers and achieve their version of ‘’life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” as Thomas Jefferson so eloquently put it.

These past days have brought two more examples of the blind ideological furor which drives purveyors of the politics of selfishness when it comes to education. In both cases, government bodies are taking actions that all credible research shows do not work in improving student performance in the classroom or on standardized tests.

Let’s start with Phoenix, Arizona. The state of Arizona is the poster child for the failure of charter schools. The research shows that charter schools in the state significantly underperform public schools. While proponents of charter schools can cite one or two charter schools nationally which outperform their public school districts, none are in Arizona, where the performance of charter schools is truly dismal. 

So what is the Phoenix school district doing to help students living in poor neighborhoods? Giving them charter schools, which until now have mostly been in the middle class sections of Phoenix—primarily, I assume, so that middle class whites could avoid having their children associate with minorities. 

Why would Phoenix want to expand a concept that has proven not to work? My answer: those in control of the Phoenix school board and Phoenix government care more about breaking the teachers’ union than educating kids. Charter schools generally are exempt from having to hire teachers in the union and so are used in most areas as a wedge to break the union. The advantage to the charter school operator is the ability to pay teachers less and reallocate the money to higher salaries for the administration and, in the case of for-profit charters, to profit for the owners.

Let’s move on to Kansas, where the state legislature and Governor Sam Brownback have cut the money for public schools per student so low that a judge has ruled the allocation unconstitutional because the Kansas constitution explicitly requires the legislature to finance the educational interests of the state. Like all opponents of public school spending, the Wall Street Journal editorial board is wringing its hands over the court decision, claiming that If there's one certain conclusion from the last 30 years of education reform, it is that more money doesn't yield better student results.” This statement is a half lie: What the studies show is that spending more money per student doesn’t help to improve performance unless the money is spent in the classroom—that is, for more teachers to lower teacher/pupil ratios and for new and better books and other learning materials. Spending in the classroom does improve performance. The Kansas legislators and their supporters may or may not care about Kansas children who can’t afford private schools, but they certainly care a lot about enforcing the right-wing ideological principal that the government must continually cut taxes and never raise them. 

Money enters into the Arizona situation as well, as the state spends 17 percent less on public education than the national average and had the country’s largest drop in funding from 2002 to 2012 despite a 12 percent increase in enrollment. If Arizona increased support of public schools and used the additional money to hire more teachers, it would have a better chance of raising school performance than would establishing more charter schools, a failed experiment. But Republicans, who dominate the legislatures in both Arizona and Kansas, would rather keep taxes at historic lows than care for the children in their charge.

We see ideology trump facts every day, whether it is some pseudo-expert proposing that environmental regulations hurt the economy (false) or that cutting taxes on the wealthy leads to job creation (even more false). The news media suborns this reign of ignorance by telling both sides of the story, even when the one side is full of poppycock—for example by giving equal say to ignorant opponents of childhood vaccination as they do to infectious disease experts or by publishing tirades against the concept of climate change.

But let’s not get too hung up on this right-wing obsession with hewing to disproven notions for ideological reasons, lest we forget that in this case the victims are our children. Of course, if the Arizona and Kansas powers-who-be thought the children involved were theirs, they would act differently. But they think and have convinced the voting public that the children belong to some undeserving other—poor and minority—who are not part of their real America. We should therefore not contemplate the state of right-wing educational reform with intellectual arrogance, but with a burning shame that so many children of all races and backgrounds in America are being denied the opportunity to fulfill the dream that slaveholder Jefferson had for white males.

And why? So we can keep taxes low for “them that got,” to quote Billie Holiday’s song.  Few in power in Kansas and Arizona are blessing the child.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Wall Street Journal diverts class warfare with claim that middle class pays for poor to attend college

By Marc Jampole

A Wall Street Journal article is reimagining university finances as a wealth transfer program that steals from the rich and middle class to give to the poor. In doing so, writer Douglas Belkin attempts to reframe the current class war in the United States. 

Belkin’s argument starts with the fact that government has withdrawn massive subsidies from public universities in recent years. Belkin does not mention that this cutback resulted from an historic lowering of taxes on the wealthy.  The way that public universities made up the shortfall from reduced government subsidies was to raise tuition. But, as many American families understand with painful clarity, that pushed tuition out of reach of many deserving students. Universities have responded by giving tuition breaks to more and more working class and poor students.

The article quotes from both poor students who say they wouldn’t be able to attend college without the tuition breaks and from students whose families make amounts that are just out of reach for qualifying for needs-based aid. One student bemoans the irony of her tuition payments subsidizing poorer students while she will graduate with educational loans to pay. The article seems to postulate that the sole reason for tuition increases has been to make sure middle class and rich students pay enough to carry their poorer cohorts.

Following the money is often helpful in understanding a situation, but in this case, the Journal has only followed half the money trail, the half after tax cuts have gutted state and federal budgets. When we follow the complete unvirtuous cycle that has radically changed the nature of college finances over the past 30 years we see that the real transfer of wealth has not been down the ladder but up the ladder. Rich folk pay less in taxes, and the middle class and poor pay more in tuition. When we consider that rich folk represent a higher percentage of private school students, which enjoy no or limited government support, the redistribution of wealth upwards intensifies. Moreover, it is naïve to think that most poor state school students get enough of a tuition break to make up for the obscene inflation in college costs over recent decades.

Behind the Journal’s partial and partisan math looms the politics of selfishness, the benighted idea that it always unfair to make a citizen pay for another citizen.  The ideology of selfishness informs and shapes the entire article. It describes the efforts of students in Texas and protestors in other states to fight what the article calls “set-asides,” funds earmarked from tuition to pay for tuition discounts for needy students.  The article quotes Ronald Ehrenberg, director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute; “We used to believe that public higher education benefited all residents of a state, not only the people who were attending, because the more highly educated workforce meant more economic growth…But now our society has moved toward the notion that the people who are paying are the ones who will benefit, so they should pay.”  

The idea that society does not benefit from an educated workforce is complete nonsense and a dangerous notion. More dangerous, though, is the underlying idea that group solutions to public challenges are inherently unfair. The typical family will need public college for 4-12 years, depending on how many children they have. Most people couldn’t possible afford to pay for a high quality education over that amount of time. Fortunately, most people remain in the work force for 40-45 years, giving them extra time to pay their fair share in taxes. Cutting taxes and making people pay for their or their children’s college education over a much shorter time will naturally lead to financial problems.  The Journal wants us to blame those problems on the poor, when it fact they have emerged primarily because the wealthy have decided to retreat from the social contract which ruled this country from the end of the Great Depression to the mid 1970s.  

Conservatives like to blame the poor and like even more to pretend that the best interests of the middle class are different from those of the poor and working class.  They want to pit the poor against the middle class, so neither will realize who is perpetrating the real class war. But the college financial crisis has as its root cause the same dynamic that has led to our sluggish job recovery, the increased inequality of wealth, our public school challenges and our decaying infrastructure of mass transit, bridges and roads: Taxes are too low, especially on the wealthy, and have been for many years now. As a nation, we have replaced the social contract that created a middle class nation with a dog-eat-dog, I’m-only-in-it-for-myself ideology that helps the rich take more.