Monday, April 09, 2012

Educational "Reform" Proposal Misses the Mark

By Carl Bloice - Editorial Board
BC   March 29, 2012 By Carl Bloice 

On the same day a national task force warned that the country’s security and economic prosperity are at risk if America’s schools don’t improve, California State University system said it would shut out thousands of mid-year applicants for spring terms starting in January.
According to the Oakland Tribune, only eight of the system’s 23 campuses will accept transfer students for the spring 2013 term, and none will accept new freshmen. “The decision will leave thousands of community-college students with an unenviable choice:
Spend the time and money taking unnecessary community-college classes for an extra semester or drop out and try to make ends meet until Cal State reopens its doors,” wrote Matt Krupnick.
“The dominant power of the 21st century will depend on human capital,” the 30-member task force, led by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Joel Klein, the former chancellor of New York City’s school, declared this week. “The failure to produce that capital will undermine American security.” This statement came shortly after U. S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told a Howard University gathering, “President Obama has challenged all of us to lead the world with college graduates by 2020. But we cannot reach that goal unless educational opportunities are extended to everyone fairly and accurately.”
Regrettably, the contrast between what is being said about education in our country, and what is actually happening on the ground, serves to illustrate the galling amount of flim-flam and hypocrisy that characterizes today’s public discussion of the nation’s schools from kindergarten to the university level.
Since Duncan took up his post, somewhere in the vicinity of 270,000 teachers and other public school employees have lost their jobs because state and local education budgets have been slashed. “The teachers who have not been laid off have also been deeply affected by the economic downturn: class sizes are larger, after-school and arts enrichment programs have been cut, and an increasing number of their students are relying on safety net sources for health services and other basic needs,” observed the New York Times March 7.
In California alone, the number of full-time teachers has decreased by 32,000 statewide over the past four years.

It’s not Duncan’s fault or the Administration’s. The crisis has arisen in part because of the economic recession and the responses to it. The problem is however lofty the proclamations are about the value of education, the schools, teachers and students are still getting the short end of the austerity stick.  Regrettably, the task of conducting a struggle to improve the schools - or at least to prevent their further decimation—has fallen largely upon the teachers, instructors and professors, a task not made any easier by the incessant attacks upon them.
When President Obama met with the nation’s governors last month he said, “Too many states are making cuts that I think are too big. Budgets are by choice, so today I’m calling on all of you: invest more in education, invest more in our children.”
“California public schools are in crisis - and they are getting worse,” educator Duane Campbell wrote recently.  “This is a direct result of massive budget cuts imposed by the legislature and the governor in the last four years. Total per pupil expenditure is down by over $1,000 per student. The result: massive class size increases. Students are often in classes too large for quality learning. Supplementary services such as tutoring and art classes have been eliminated. Over 14,000 teachers have been dismissed, and thousands more face layoffs this fall.”
“California schools are now 47th in the nation in per pupil expenditure and 49th in class size,” continued Campbell, a Professor (emeritus) of Bilingual/Multicultural Education at CSU-Sacramento and the area chair of the Democratic Socialists of America.  “Our low achievement scores on national tests reflect this severe underfunding.”
I had to laugh out loud last Sunday when the New York Times Thomas Friedman indignantly decried Egypt’s “deficit of modern education.” “Our response should have been to shift our aid money from military equipment to building science-and-technology high schools and community colleges across Egypt,” he wrote.  I’m certainly for assistance to Egyptian education, and $1.3 billion in aid to the Egypt’s hardly-pro-democracy military serves no useful purpose. Still, why couldn’t some of our country’s bloated military budget be directed toward building science-and-technology high schools and community colleges across the U.S?
After all, Rice, Klein and their panel say it’s a matter of national security.
Media reports on the Rice-Klein panel’s conclusions have emphasized its recommendations having to do with the usual litany of educational “reforms,” including school choice and vouchers - “so many students aren’t stuck in underperforming schools.”
According to the Associated Press, the report does, however, add a new element to the debate, a “national security readiness audit” that “can be used to judge whether schools are meeting national expectations in education” especially as regards a “common core initiative to include skill sets critical to national security such as science, technology and foreign languages.”
Evidently, some people think that it’s a good idea to posit education as a national security imperative rather than what it should be - an indispensible element of a functioning democratic society. It sounds a lot like a desire to produce graduates fit for military service rather than scientifically, culturally and technologically equipped citizens.
“I don’t think people have really thought about the national security implications and the inability to have people who speak the requisite languages who can staff a volunteer military, the kind of morale and human conviction you need to hold a country together. I don’t think people have thought about it in those terms,” Klein told AP.
There will probably be a measure on the California ballot in November that would provide new funding for the schools and somewhat lessen the impact of the current crisis. If it fails, as many as 25,000 qualified applicants could to be turned away by the CSU system next year.
“The California economy needs to invest in roads, bridges, telephone lines, communications systems, clean energy and quality education,” writes Campbell. “These are the down payments that make prosperity possible.” Conservative opposition to any new tax ignores the undeniable, historic fact that prosperity depends upon having a viable educational system and a well functioning infrastructure. Rather than invest in something that pays itself back many times over, the Republicans have led the effort to starve public education of desperately needed revenue.”
“The good news is polling consistently shows that the California voters are willing to pay for a quality public education system. The hurdle to putting these poll numbers to the test has been getting such a historic choice and opportunity onto the ballot. It appears that this November Californians just may finally have a chance to make their voices heard.”
“The American people are right to be concerned about our education system,” writes Diana Epstein, senior education policy analyst at the Center for American Progress. “The United States suffers from persistent achievement gaps between groups of students defined by race or family income. And our students also rank well behind those in economically competitive countries on international academic-achievement tests. Racial and income achievement gaps run counter to America’s founding ideals of an equal and just society. Further, lower levels of achievement are also associated with poorer health, lower earnings, and higher levels of incarceration.”
Noting that federal education spending is projected to be reduced by 8 percent or 9 percent next year, Epstein writes, “Cuts of this magnitude will make it far more difficult for schools to provide the education that our students need in order to grow our economy and rebuild the middle class. Deeper cuts would put our students even further behind where they need to be.”
Taking aim at the education cuts contained in the budget proposals of the Republicans in the House of Representatives, Epstein continues: the cuts “are shortsighted and harmful for a number of reasons. First of all, continued investment in education is critical in order to put our economy on the path to sustained growth. Second, a reduction in federal support would take resources away from critically important programs at a time when states are also making significant cuts to education. Third, federal education programs provide more equitable resources for students who need it most - without federal support, many hard-fought gains would erode for children living in poverty.”
“To achieve desired levels of economic growth and live up to our founding ideals, the United States must increase the overall level of achievement of students in the K-12 education system and close both international achievement gaps and the persistent achievement gaps between groups of American children defined by ethnicity or family income. Simply put, the House budget plan is a huge step in the wrong direction.”
What are needed now are big steps in the right direction, something missing from the much discussed proposals emanating from either the conservative or the liberal reformers.
What the Rice-Klein panel’s recommendations do not include is adequate warning about the harm being currently inflicted on the nation’s schools, or the crying need to call a halt to the funding cutbacks and teacher layoffs. Thus it avoids what I think is the question at the heart of the situation: why do there have to be “underperforming schools” and why is it that the richest and most powerful country on the planet appears to be unwilling or unable to afford to adequately educate its younger generations? Editorial Board member Carl Bloice is a writer in San Francisco, a member of the National Coordinating Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism and formerly worked for a healthcare union.

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