Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Destruction of Public Education and the Conservative Agenda

For some time now, I have suspected that the Conservative agenda involved the systematic dismantling and undermining of public education. Conservatives have repeatedly belittled public school teachers, fought the increase property taxes (which are the primary source of funding for most public school budgets), sought to pass bills calling for vouchers, and promoted the proliferation of charter schools, as their agenda for “reforming public education.” I have seen this is my children’s own suburban school district, in the Philadelphia public schools and in communities around the country. Taken together these actions sound the death knell of many public schools, especially in economically depressed communities. However, I doubt it will stop there; conservatives want to destroy publicly funded education in all its forms.

Recent actions by Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett have done nothing to dissuade me from this perspective; in fact he all but publicly proposed that for two communities in Pennsylvania. In my last blog posting, I decried the action of the governor denying funding for the Chester-Upland school district that had run out of money mid-year. The governor refused to provide relief claiming the school had “mismanaged” its funds. Chester-Upland has been under the oversight of the state government for several years, so if there was mismanagement it was in his own government as before he was governor he was the Attorney General.
Fortunately, a federal judge ordered Gov. Corbett to provide the $3.2 million necessary for the Chester-Upland district to complete its school year; this isn’t sufficient but it gives the district some more time However, the governor has already submitted a bill to the PA legislature that will effectively dissolve the school district, disband the teacher’s contracts and turn the remaining schools over to charters. He has proposed a similar plan for the community of Duquesne City in Western PA. Moreover, he proposes lower payments to schools that Chester student would apply to, thus making a lesser incentive for schools to attract or admit Chester students. The bill is so bad that even some of the Governor’s Republican allies are rejecting the bill. Fortunately, others are proposing their own bills, but it is clear that while the Governor continues to protect his corporate friends from any more taxes, he openly and disdainfully ignores the needs of the poorest citizens and their children in place like Chester. Because of the governor’s budget slashing other districts like Philadelphia also face further cutbacks even after slashing $600 million for their budget last summer, which led to larger class sizes, fewer teachers and the elimination of many academic support programs.

In 1962 Michael Harrington published his classic book on American poverty, The Other America, in which he exposed to the world the travesty of desperate poverty in a land of such wealth and opportunity. Harrington’s book so moved President Lyndon Johnson that is was believed to be a major influence in his efforts to create The Great Society programs that addressed poverty at levels never before seen. It is these same Great Society and War on Poverty programs that conservatives have consistently criticized and systematically dismantled over the last 50+ years. That is probably why Harrington’s book continues to be published and re-issued, and why now 50 years later because of hard-hearted conservatives like Corbett, it is still very relevant. This is not to say all conservatives are hard-hearted (there have been so-called compassionate conservatives like George W. Bush who disagreed with liberal policies but did not totally turn their back on the needs of the poor and offered their own solutions), but the brand of conservatism currently being practiced by leaders like Gov. Corbett, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker shows no compassion nor concern for those who still suffer in the Other America.

While many of us don’t need to worry about our kids and their schools because they haven’t gotten to the point of Chester, we should take note what is happening. We need to see the trends, and recognize that while states are required to provide all students a quality public education, conservatives blatantly disregard that mandate in communities in most need and with the least resources. At the same time schools are being de-funded prisons are being built at a record pace in states like Pennsylvania. Research shows that there is a clear correlation between youth violence and low quality education. When it comes to building a school to prison pipeline, conservatives like Tom Corbett are showing us the way it is done with impunity.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Balancing the Budget on the Backs of the Poor: Chester-Upland School District

While the fiscal conservatives say that we must “tighten our belts” and “everyone must sacrifice,” the recent news that the Chester-Upland(PA) school district has run out of money and can no longer operate their schools is yet another example that the ones who sacrifice are those with the least to give up. (For those not familiar with PA, Chester is one of the poorest cities in the state, and is located 10 miles south of Philadelphia. Its school district depends heavily on state funds because more than 50% of the residents of Chester live below the poverty line.)The state of Pennsylvania is mandated by law to provide quality public education to all children in the state. Yet since becoming governor a year ago, Tom Corbett, has slashed spending on services to the poor, decreased the amount of money the state provides to low income school districts, refused to raise taxes on wealthy individuals and companies, and advocated vouchers so that money would be taken away from public schools. When Chester officials asked the state to intervene, the governor said “no” blaming them for “mismanagement” - yet another example of “blaming the victim”; believe me, no one is getting rich in Chester except Harrah’s Casino and PPL Park the home of the Philadelphia Union soccer team.

When folks want to know what the Occupy Wall Street movement is about when it says the 1% are profiting off the 99%, Chester-Upland School district is exhibit A. While the governor and his Republican colleagues talk about  “balancing the budget”, yet protecting their wealthy and corporate supporters, the poor of Chester and elsewhere suffer.
John Rawls, political philosopher whose work set the framework for the Great Society programs of the 60’s and 70’s, said that a society is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable. The moral vision that moved leaders on both sides of the political spectrum to set up social safety net for the poor and disabled caused them to see that the wealthiest society in the world could not allow any of its citizens to go uncared for. The callous disregard for basic needs such as health care, housing and education that began in the 1980’s under President Reagan and has increased to the present shows not only a social callousness but a loss of moral vision. That a state governor can disregard his legal mandate to provide education to the children of Chester, while refusing to levy taxes on gas companies reaping millions in Pennsylvania, only shows how far we have fallen.

Conservatives often like to bemoan the moral decline in our country, and in certain instances I share their concerns, but as Jesus said they need to take the log out of their own eyes before they seek to remove the speck in another’s eye. The judgment falls hard on those leaders who would forsake and deny their moral and legal mandates to care for the needs of the poor, and then have the gall to defend their view by blaming the victims and calling for a “balanced budget.”
If you are a PA resident I urge you to write your state representatives and call upon them to provide funding so that the children of Chester Upland can receive the quality education they are guaranteed by law to receive.