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Public Education Fights for Its Life

Max Eternity: Austerity measures are eroding America’s public school system.

Austerity measures are eroding America’s public school system. With massive increases in school closures and class cancellations, advocates say educational opportunities for students of all ages are increasingly being diminished.

This is not a new problem, per se. It is, however, an escalating one, and one that is being resisted.

Currently in Chicago—under the auspices of Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, the former chief of staff for President Obama—it was announced in March that 54 public schools will be closed, with 61 schools scheduled to be closed before the 2013–2014 school year begins. Emmanuel says that the closings are a “done deal.” Not everyone agrees with Emmanuel, and countering his assertion Karen Lewis says ‘it’s pretty much indicative that he [Emmanuel] has no respect for the law.” Lewis is president of the Chicago Teachers Union, and says that there are supposed to be hearings for each school, and that Emmanuel’s unilateral actions show “the depth of his contempt for people” in the community, especially those who are not “wealthy” and well-connected.

Right now in California, City College of San Francisco (CCSF) is on the verge of losing its accreditation as a direct consequence of a $53 million dollar loss in state funding. Because of this, many classes are no longer being offered. Additionally, the cost of [in-state] tuition at CCSF has risen 25% in the last 2 years, and to boot, student enrollment is way down.

KQED reports that California’s community colleges have dropped to a 20-year enrollment low, and in a video report at the Real News Network, Alisa Messer, President of CCSF Faculty Union, says that “what happened in California in the last several years is that we’ve pushed a half million students out of the community college system.” And though the faculty had agreed last year to a voluntary 2.8% pay cut towards assisting in alleviating budget woes, the district cut faculty wages by nearly 9%.

Elsewhere, like in Michigan, for instance, the Public Schools Emergency Manager, Roy Roberts, announced last year that “underperforming” schools will be targeted for closure, with 130 schools having been closed there since 2005.

In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg is attempting to close 17 schools, which are said to be low-performing. However, the Urban Youth Collaborative and the Coalition for Educational Justice have filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education alleging the city’s school closures disproportionately affect “students of color and students with disabilities.”

Author and activist, Tolu Orlorunda, shared his findings on how race factors in on public school closings in an article entitled “Journey for Justice: Mass School Closings and the Death of Communities,” stating that:

From 2003-2012, in New York City, 117 schools were closed. Twenty-five more closings are scheduled for 2013. Sixty-three percent of the students affected are black.

Since 2001, in Chicago, 72 schools have been closed or phased out. Ninety percent of the students affected are black.

In 2008, 23 schools were closed in Washington, DC. Ninety-nine percent of the students affected were black or brown.

Since 2005, in Detroit, 130 schools have been closed. Ninety-three percent of the students affected are black.

Curiously, while public schools are rapidly closing, charter schools—using public funding for privately-operated schools—have sprouted and expanded to take their share of budget dollars.

Many find this educational shift troubling, including a public school teacher of 30 years, Stan Karp, who is director of the Secondary Reform Project for New Jersey’s Education Law Center, and the editor to Rethinking Schools. Karp wrote in a March 8th commentary about charter schools, saying “nearly every teacher dreams of starting a school…[b]ut the current push for deregulated charters and privatization is doing nothing to reduce the concentrations of 70, 80, and 90 percent poverty that remain the central problem in our urban schools.” He says a more “equitable” approach to school reform can be seen in Raleigh, North Carolina, where efforts “were made to improve theme-based and magnet programs at all schools, and the concentration of free/reduced lunch students at any one school was limited to 40 percent or less.” That simple plan, Karp says, resulted in “some of the nation’s best progress on closing gaps in achievement and opportunity.”

Further making his case in the article, Karp says:

  • Significant evidence suggests that charters are part of a market-driven plan to create a less stable, less secure and less expensive teaching staff…working to privatize everything from curriculum to professional development to the making of education policy.
  • [C]harter school teachers are, on average, less experienced, less unionized and less likely to hold state certification than teachers in traditional public schools.
  • As many as one in four charter school teachers leave every year, about double the turnover rate in traditional public schools.
  • Charter schools typically pay less for longer hours. But charter school administrators often earn more than their school-district counterparts.

It’s past time to refocus public policy on providing a deserved quality education for all Americans, says Shawn Fremstad, an attorney and Senior Research Analyst at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). Because inevitably, he believes, a good education leads to a good career and thus economic security. Fremstad says that actually the funding issue “goes to the larger issue of are we creating good jobs, and what happens when you don’t do that.” Fremstad says there “are all sorts of people who want to start a career, but if there aren’t good paths—what’s available for you—then I think that lacking those resources, the criminal justice system ends up trapping a lot of people in its net.” More and more, he says “the criminal justice system has become the dragnet that is replacing our safety net.” This trend, he says “is a failure to invest in people,” causing undue harm to students, teachers, local economies and communities.