War Spreads to Public Ed

Republicans have carried their war on the working class to the nation’s classrooms, from kindergarten through doctoral programs.

The Tea Party Republican insistence that taxes cannot be raised for any reason has resulted in drastic cuts to public education in many states. In Texas, the Legislature in 2011 cut $5.4 billion from K-12 funding to help balance the state’s two-year budget, while lawmakers left $6 billion in the state’s “Rainy Day Fund.”

As a result of the Texas budget cuts, 1,264 local school districts were forced to cut 25,286 jobs, including 10,717 teachers, according to Children at Risk, an advocacy group in Houston. In some districts, teachers are expected to take over janitorial duties. Texas schools spend $8,908 per student, a decrease of $538 from the previous year and below the national average of $11,463, according to the National Education Association, Manny Fernandez reported in the New York Times (April 9). California spent $9,710 and New York $15,592.

Texas class sizes have grown to 40 or more kids per class, districts have stopped providing bus services to children who live within two miles of their schools, many urban districts have shut down neighborhood elementary schools and reassigned children to remaining schools and arts and music programs are being eliminated.

The budget cuts contribute to the poor performance of public schools, which creates an opportunity for private enterprise, and “charter school” operators have stepped up to fill the gap.

Republicans in the Alabama Legislature are pushing a bill to take money away from cash-strapped public schools to pay for charter schools, but the Alabama AFL-CIO warned that the lack of transparency and the potential for mismanagement of funds was something Alabama could not afford — particularly after the state has cut $600 million from the state’s education budget in the past four years. The labor federation noted that in 2009 there were roughly 5,000 charter schools in the US and more than 15% had been closed due to mismanagement of taxpayer money.

In Florida, charter schools were billed as the “sensible alternative to struggling inner-city schools.” However, the Miami Herald reported, “Charters started as nonprofit endeavors mostly to help inner-city students succeed. They have evolved into money-making suburban enterprises with for-profit management companies lobbying their way up the Tallahassee food chain to keep expanding — even at the expense of public schools that are making great gains in student learning. Talk about bait and switch.”

Michigan has over 250 charter schools with 120,000 students, but a study released this year showed that statewide tests of academic achievement for charter school students performing below state averages for traditional public school students.

In New Orleans, taxpayers are struggling to get charter school boards to adhere to open-government laws. Of Louisiana’s 14 charter schools up for renewal, 13 failed to comply with open-government laws, but all 14 charters were renewed. But Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) recently signed into law a landmark package of bills that come from the playbook of the American Legislative Exchange Council. The “reforms” will expand charter schools, provide school vouchers for students in “failing schools” and weaken teacher tenure policies.

More than half of Louisiana’s student population, or around 385,000 students would qualify for the voucher program, according to Tulane University’s Cowen Institute. Only 4,000 vouchers will be available in the first year, but the law makes Louisiana’s program the most expansive in the nation, Julianne Hing reported at Colorlines.com (April 23).

If the working poor manage to get their high school diplomas they can’t expect much help from Republicans if they hope to pursue a college education.

Republicans have been responsible for increasing the cost of higher education ever since Ronald Reagan, as governor of California, complained that college students had things too easy because the state’s colleges were tuition-free. The state’s universities dutifully imposed tuition (as “student fees”) for the first time in 1968. Tuition skyrocketed after passage of Proposition 13 in 1978 made it extraordinarily difficult for California to raise taxes. Today, as Andrew Leonard notes on page 17, California pays only 11% of university costs and annual tuition is now $13,200 for in-state students, with a total cost, including fees, room and board, of $31,200 per year.

The situation is similar in Texas, which used to be proud that university costs were low enough that the children of working-class families could pursue a college degree. In 1970, full-time tuition for Texas residents was $50 per semester and fees were $54, for a total of $104 per semester, as the state paid the bulk of the cost of education. Since Republicans took over the state government in the late 1990s, the Legislature has reduced appropriations to cover only about 20% of the universities’ budgets. Tuition cost $8,986 to $10,326 in 2010-11 for Texas residents and the total cost for undergraduates, including fees, room and board, was about $25,000 per year.

At the same time, Republicans in Congress propose to cut $170 billion from Pell grants over the next decade, which would cut one million mainly low-income students from the financial aid program. Republicans also would let interest rates on federally subsidized Stafford student loans double, from the current 3.4% interest rate to 6.8% for loans made after July 1. The increase in interest rates would increase the debt load on more than seven million students by an average of $1,000 each.

College costs already are too high and they saddle graduates with debt that can be crushing as they hit the job market. The median debt is $12,800 but the average balance is $23,00, as a relatively small number of borrowers are saddled with very large balances of $100,000 or more.

President Obama has called on Congress to prevent the increase but House Republicans are refusing to go along unless $6 billion is cut from other higher education programs.

President Obama told students at the University of North Carolina April 24 he and his wife, Michelle, had a tough time with student debt. “Check this out, all right. I’m the president of the United States. We only finished paying off our student loans off about eight years ago. That wasn’t that long ago. And that wasn’t easy — especially because when we had Malia and Sasha, we’re supposed to be saving up for their college educations, and we’re still paying off our college educations,” he said.

“We didn’t come from wealthy families. When we graduated from college and law school we had a mountain of debt. When we married, we got poor together. We added up our assets and there were no assets. And we added up our liabilities and there were lot of liabilities — basically in the form of student loans.”

The presumptive GOP nominee, Mitt Romney, who never had to worry about a tuition payment, had been blasé about college affordability. At an Ohio campaign stop March 5, he told a college student he would do nothing about rising college costs. “It would be popular for me to stand up and say I’m going to give you government money to pay for your college, but I’m not going to promise that,” Romney said, according to the New York Times. He advised her to shop around. “Don’t just go to one that has the highest price. Go to one that has a little lower price where you can get a good education. And hopefully you’ll find that. And don’t expect the government to forgive the debt that you take on.”

Romney changed his tune April 24, saying Congress should extend the low interest rate for Stafford loans, but his conversion had no noticeable impact on Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Still, educating our youth is the best investment we can make and Congress should act quickly to keep college accessible for working-class high school graduates. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2012


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