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Gutting Public Education: Neoliberalism and the Politics of Opportunism

America’s political and economic elites have declared a war on working, middle-class and poor Americans. Now that war is coming to a head with the draconian cuts in education, among other vital services, under the economic recession.

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America’s political and economic elites have declared a war on working, middle-class and poor Americans. Now that war is coming to a head with the draconian cuts in education, among other vital services, under the economic recession. Progressive critics of Republicans and Democrats have attacked the return of “Hooverian economics” in recent years – understood as the do-nothing approach to dealing with the economic crisis and declining state budgets. Political officials stubbornly refuse to either raise taxes or increase federal or state spending, so as to stimulate economic demand and fill in annual state deficits, at a time when the private sector is unable to produce an economic recovery. Keynesian government spending – which aims at stimulating economic demand during times of recession and depression – has received support at one level or another from most economists, but has become taboo at a time when officials worship at the altar of “budget cuts” and fiscal austerity. Neoliberal policies have long been known to be extremely destructive in less developed countries where they have been implemented for decades. Now, these same policies are appearing in the US and are set to decimate social services along with any lingering economic vitality.

The Hooverian approach should more accurately be classified, not as a “do nothing” approach to dealing with the economy and budgets, but as a “do much against” American workers policy – one that aims at gutting vital social services such as education, health care, police and public transit services, spending for the disabled, and other areas of state services and employment. Quite cynically, subsidies to corporate elites in the form of the 2008 TARP bailout are given urgent priority, while officials speak of the need to “tighten our belts” when it comes to sacrificing access to quality education.

The Obama administration initially responded to the 2008 economic collapse by pushing a $787 billion stimulus package. The initiative helped plug holes in state deficits and stave off mass firings, but it was much weaker than many had hoped, as two-thirds of economists surveyed felt that Obama should have spent more to effectively deal with the crisis. The 2009 stimulus was too meager to fill all the gaps in declining state budgets, although a much larger package may have helped spur economic growth and pull the US out of recession. From 2009 through 2010, the stimulus helped compensate for between 30 to 40 percent of the budget gaps in the states, although it is projected to cover just 20 percent or less over the next fiscal year. Attempts by the Obama administration to push a new stimulus have crashed and burned in Congress, as conservative Democrats and Republicans stymied a recent Senate proposal for a $140 billion package designed to cover aid to states, unemployment benefits and state Medicare shortfalls. The losers in this victory for neoliberalism are the needy throughout the states who are living in poverty or in danger of losing their jobs. The American Association of School Administrators estimates that the number of jobs lost in the next school year from budget cuts (275,000) will roughly equal those originally preserved by the stimulus (300,000).

While the stimulus saved hundreds of thousands of jobs, efforts to “balance budgets” are succeeding in wiping away the progress made. The state of New York is projected to lose nearly 15,000 teachers next year and an additional 2,600 staff in light of the $1.4 billion in planned cuts supported by Governor Patterson. In Illinois, approximately 20,000 teachers will lose their jobs, while Democrats in the state Congress demand fiscal discipline in the name of “efficiency” in government and “low taxes.” In total, some 45 states have put in place spending cuts, according to a report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). While the organization estimates that 30 states have increased their taxes – either on a more minor or comprehensive level – only eight states bothered to initiate major tax increases in an attempt to cover budget shortfalls.

The CBPP offers what should be a well known truth regarding the recent state budget cuts:

“These cuts,” rather than balancing budgets and stabilizing the economy, “have deepened states’ economic problems because families and businesses have less to spend … Cuts to state services not only harm vulnerable residents but also worsen the recession – and dampen the recovery – by reducing overall economic activity. When states cut spending, they lay off employees, cancel contracts with vendors, reduce payments to businesses and nonprofits that provide services and cut benefit payments to individuals. All of these steps remove demand from the economy.”

To put this removal of demand into better context, state and local governments have wiped out more than 210,000 jobs since August of 2008, ensuring that those who are unemployed will no longer provide to the tax base and will become far more careful and conservative in their spending in the future. The cuts are also unlikely to balance budgets since the state will continue to lose a major part of its tax base as a result of the mass firings.

Republican officials have tried to obscure the negative economic and social effects of the budget cuts. In Illinois, the Republican Governors Association is spending hundreds of thousands promoting an ad that attacks Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn for pushing a one percent income tax increase that the state “can’t afford,” while simultaneously criticizing the governor for promising job cuts should the tax increase fail. Such hypocrisy demonstrates the contempt in which neoliberal politicians hold for the American people. The state of Illinois already has among the lowest taxes in the Midwest and Republican and Democratic efforts within the state to keep taxes low are directly fueling the mass firings. This reality is obscured, however, in Republican political advertising and propaganda.

In the arena of higher education, the recent budget cuts are merely the latest in a sustained assault on the public university. The shift from majority tenured professors to majority adjunct faculty over the years was no accident; it represented a deliberate policy on the part of university administrators to dismantle basic protections for workers in higher education. As the New York Times reported in 2007, “the shift from a tenured faculty results,” among other things, “from financial pressures [of state officials looking to cut education spending budgets],” and “administrators’ desire for more flexibility in hiring, firing and changing course offerings.” The desire for increased “flexibility,” it should be recognized, is a nice way of saying that state employees should be permanently insecure in their jobs.

For those who may reject this depiction of higher ed as melodramatic or conspiratorial, one need look no further than the deteriorating state of academia today. Thirty years ago, nontenured professors accounted for 43 percent of all teachers in higher ed; that number had increased to a startling 70 percent by 2007. Most nontenured professors I’ve spoken to are forced to scrounge in search of course offerings at multiple institutions. When they manage to find work, they typically are paid within the range of $15,000 to $30,000 a year, despite possessing either a master’s degree or Ph.D.

University administrators are able to deceive the public regarding the pitiful pay of adjuncts by deliberately misreporting earning figures. The National Education Association’s spring 2010 issue of the Advocate, for example, uncritically prints the figures released by university administrators, claiming that the “average” instructor or lecturer at a college in Illinois makes approximately $46,000 a year (similar numbers are printed for colleges in other states too). Having taught in the Illinois higher education system for the last five years, I can personally testify that, out of the countless instructors I have known, I have never met a single teacher who was paid anything close to that figure. The fact of the matter is that university administrators have been paying adjuncts near poverty wages for years and effectively obfuscating this reality in the numbers they provide to the public.

Tragically, the establishment of adjuncts as a mainstay of the university is just the first stage of the comprehensive plan to destroy public education as we know it. According to a 2005 survey, 53 percent of college presidents openly admit that they want to get rid of tenure altogether. The massive budget cuts across states can be seen as the next step in accomplishing this goal. Since tenured professors are notoriously difficult to fire, adjuncts are inevitably suffering the most from the recent cuts in higher education, as they work for little and are the first to be fired. What few tenured professors remain (in light of the mass firing of adjuncts) are being asked to pick up the slack in terms of increased class sizes. In short, the assault on the last remnants of tenure is well under way.

Tenured and tenure-track professors have been content over the years to go along with the assault on higher ed, failing to recognize that they are the ultimate target of college administrators. Marc Bousquet argues in the Chronicle for Higher Education: “Contrary to the assumptions of most observers, faculty in the [higher education] tenure stream have seriously harmed themselves and the profession by their lazy complicity with the two-tiered system of majority contingent employment. And they foolishly excuse their complicity by assigning blame to any cause but their own failure of responsibility to the profession … American faculty aren’t leftists; they’re liberals, deeply influenced by market ideology and fantasies about meritocratic education outcomes. They work in institutions that manufacture and legitimate steep economic inequalities that hamper the progress of other egalitarian commitments in ethnicity and gender.” It was only inevitable that this neoliberal system would eventually target the privileged, tenured few who now remain.

The neoliberal agenda is characterized by an open declaration of war on the majority in pursuit of corporate welfare for the few. American politics is increasingly consumed by an obsession with ever increasing military spending (itself a boon for corporate military contractors), pursued alongside promises of tax cuts for the rich that inevitably eviscerate budgets for social welfare spending. National and state governments set aside trillions every year for the wealthy in the form of patent protections for pharmaceuticals, agribusiness subsidies, corporate bailouts, and other forms of corporate welfare. These same governments then cry poor when it comes to funding programs such as Medicare and education. Neocolonial foreign wars drive up the debt unsustainably, but it is the average American who is left to suffer when it comes time to fire educators and other state employees.

The situation, thankfully, is not hopeless. There is nothing inevitable about social spending cuts. Chicago’s public school students and teachers are proving this in their recent walkout in protest of planned education budget cuts. As recently as last week, Chicago public school teachers picketed in opposition to a city school board plan that would throw out thousands of teachers, while increasing class sizes. Their chants of “yes to need, no to greed” in opposition to neoliberal rollback should serve as inspiration for teachers across the country. After all, the only thing currently standing between public employees and mass unemployment is organization and activism.