US: Bush’s war on public education

Underfunding 101

Public education is under attack. In early 2002, Bush signed the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act into law. NCLB, which was also endorsed by "liberal" senator Ted Kennedy, proclaimed apparently laudable goals including making public schools accountable, setting standards of excellence for every child, and putting qualified teachers in every classroom.

The reality is very different. The main tools being used to assess school performance are so-called "high stakes" tests in Math and English which are to be administered yearly to all students in grades 3-8 and once in high school. The use of high stakes testing as part of determining whether students can move on to the next grade has become increasingly widespread in recent years.

But now, federal Title I money for schools with poor and disadvantaged students will be contingent on test results. If a school fails to make "adequate yearly progress" (AYP) towards all students being "proficient," the school will be deemed to be "in need of improvement."

After two years of not making "progress," Title I funding can be withdrawn and students may then choose to go to another public school. After four years, the school can be shut down altogether.

But this is only the start of the difficulties. To make AYP, a school’s test scores will also be broken down according to students’ race, ethnicity, English language ability, and disability. If even one of these subgroups of students does not make AYP or if less than 95% of students within a subgroup take the test, the whole school is deemed to be failing.

The negative consequences of high stakes testing, especially for schools in poor working-class areas, are already well documented and are set to get worse. First, it forces teachers to spend a considerable part of the year "teaching to the test," thus throwing out parts of the curriculum that could be highly beneficial to students but aren’t sufficiently geared to the tests’ narrow focus. There is pressure, for example, to reduce art and music instruction.

Second, there is the very serious question of whether 50 multiple choice questions can adequately measure a student’s intellectual development. Student frustration and anxiety inevitably increases.

Not only does high stakes testing distort teaching and put all sorts of pressure on very young children, it also becomes a measure of teacher "performance" within schools which pits teachers against each other. Teachers whose students do not "improve" sufficiently may not receive promotions and can even lose their positions if they are not tenured. NCLB is, therefore, very much part of the drive to squeeze more "productivity" out of teachers without paying for it.

As if that were not enough, the Bush administration is seeking to systematically underfund NCLB at a time when states are facing their worst fiscal crisis in decades. NCLB has, therefore, created a situation in which a very large portion of the nation’s schools, especially in deprived inner city communities, are almost bound to fail without having the resources to dig themselves out of the hole.

Leaving all children behind

This "set-up for failure" is completely deliberate. From the point of view of Bush and congressional Republicans, the failure of NCLB to "turn the schools around" will be used as justification to press harder for "vouchers" and privatization of schools. Vouchers are presented as a way of giving parents "choice," but are really a way of using public money to fund private and especially religious schools.

On the other hand, privatization (which has been partially carried out in some places, most notably Philadelphia where hundreds of inner city schools have been turned over to the Edison Corporation) is a part of the broader capitalist neo-liberal agenda.

For years, the capitalist media has gone on about the "crisis of education" in the U.S., using the refrains of "students who can’t read" and "teachers who can’t teach." Indeed, there is a massive crisis, but this is principally the result of the deliberate underfunding of education for working-class youth, and especially youth of color, stretching back over decades under both Republican and Democratic administrations.

The reality of public education reflects the huge class and racial divisions in this country. Thirteen years ago, Jonathan Kozol wrote a book called Savage Inequalities exposing how the method of funding public education, which is mainly from local property taxes, systematically favors already wealthy communities. Kozol also pointed to another trend which was increasing inequity, namely the resegregation of public schools after a very partial desegregation in the 1960s and 1970s.

Not much changed during the ’90s. A 1996 study showed that the wealthiest 5% of school districts in New York State spent $5,122 more per student than the poorest 5% of districts; in Illinois, the difference between the richest and poorest secondary school districts was $4,017 per student; while in Alaska, the disparity was an incredible $7,657 spent per student. To speak of equal educational opportunity in American public schools is a sick joke.

And as for racial discrimination, a number of articles written this year – on the 50th anniversary of the historic Brown v. Topeka Board of Education decision – made the point that American schools are now as segregated as they were 50 years ago.

John Kerry, by the way, says he is opposed to school vouchers and would significantly raise the amount the federal government spends on public education. But based on the long record of bipartisan malign neglect of public education, is there any reason to believe these claims?

Fighting for our children’s future

It is no accident that the most vociferous backer of "school reform" is big business. They want to significantly reduce the amount spent on educating working-class people.

As the number of better-paid manufacturing jobs continues to decline and is replaced by low-paid service jobs, there is less and less justification from the bosses’ point of view for wide sections of the population to go to college or get more education than they strictly "need." This is also reflected in the sharp increases in college tuition, especially at public institutions. And as for much of the inner city population, they are seen as expendable.

But big business has one other target in its war on education, namely teachers’ unions. Public education remains one of the largest, well-organized sectors of the nation’s workforce. The constant attacks on teachers’ commitment and competency is a thinly-veiled union-busting campaign.

But the most outrageous recent attack came earlier this year when Bush’s Secretary of Education, Rod Paige, described the country’s biggest teachers’ union, the NEA, as a "terrorist" organization.

In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg has thrown down the gauntlet to the largest teachers’ union local in the country, the UFT, whose 100,000+ members have been without a contract for over a year. Bloomberg’s "bargaining" position was to offer a "streamlined" contract which would throw out virtually all gains made by the union regarding working conditions during the past 50 years.

The war on public education is part and parcel of the bosses’ reactionary agenda. But as socialists, we are also clear that the purpose of education in capitalist society is to train the next generation of workers, technicians, and intellectuals and to teach conformity and acceptance of the racist, capitalist status quo. We aim to unite students, teachers, and parents in a struggle for a truly human education system as part of the fight to create an egalitarian socialist society.

Socialists say

  • Scrap the misnamed "No Child Left Behind" Act
  • No to privatization or commercialization of our schools – No to vouchers
  • No cuts in education funding – Tax big business and the rich to restore full funding for public schools
  • No layoffs of teachers, paraprofessionals, and other school workers
  • Quality education requires well-paid teachers – Raise teachers’ wages and benefits
  • Massively increase the number of teachers to dramatically reduce class sizes
  • Take control of schools away from corporate-sponsored politicians, and put it in the hands of school employees, parents, and students
  • Money for education and jobs, not war

From Justice, journal of Socialist Alternative, cwi in the US

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