The Education Budget War in Pennsylvania and a Marxist Challenge for Curriculum

Testing students(Image: Testing students via Shutterstock)

The following speech was written by Dr. Curry Malott, assistant professor in the College of Education at West Chester University of Pennsylvania, as a response to Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s historic June 30 veto of the GOP-dominated State Senate’s $11 million education budget, which was a counter to Wolf’s proposed $45 million education budget, which was part of his plan to restore 90 percent of the education budget cuts of 2011 under Gov. Tom Corbett.

The following statement is, in a way, part two of a speech I wrote, presented and published at the “Rally in West Chester for a State Budget Chester County Kids Deserve,” which was part of a state-wide summer tour organized under The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools (AROS). Beginning on June 15 and running to June 28, AROS has been holding a rally in a different city everyday, co-organized by local unions and organizations. In all, AROS is comprised of more than 100 different groups. On June 29, AROS ended their tour with nearly a weeklong occupation of the state capital, Harrisburg, demanding the State Senate support the aforementioned proposed education budget.

The premise of the “Reclaiming the Promise of Pennsylvania’s Public Education” campaign was that the old Republican governor, Tom Corbett, recently left office after having followed the national trend of defunding public education. The AROS-PA tour was designed to put pressure on the State Senate to support Governor Wolf’s education budget.

The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, aware of the connections between schooling and who the government intervenes on behalf of, argues, within their call, to “fund our public schools fully and fairly,” for ending “corporate tax loopholes,” taxing “gas drillers” and “halting any new prison construction.” Many local activist educators, union leaders, school leaders, social workers and others have joined this important movement.

AROS-PA activists are now organizing rallies to put pressure on state senators to support Governor Wolf’s veto. Again, the following response is a reflection of the current state of education reform and the need for a Marxist analysis intervening in that debate and movement.

***

Here we are, across the state of Pennsylvania and across the US, working people and our unions and organizations, feeling like we have to politely ask, and even beg, for a properly funded system of education so our kids can hope one day of selling their labor for a decent price, to be able to live a dignified existence. And in Pennsylvania, we aren’t even asking for more than what we had in the recent past. We are only asking for about 90 percent of what has been cut since 2011. That is all Governor Wolf is asking for, and he is being blocked by the State Senate. Before Governor Wolf took office, we heard Corbett time and again remind us that difficult cuts, cuts to education and other social services, had to be made; after all, we are in a recession. Sorry, no more Spanish teachers, no more bilingual education, even though all the research points to bilingual education as the best approach for meeting student language and learning needs.

Bilingual education programs do cost more than ESL equivalents. But why? From an economic point of view, they are loaded with more value. Bilingual education is loaded with the results of science. Science takes labor hours. The techniques themselves require more labor hours to execute for obvious reasons. Where ESL is designed to replace one’s home language with the dominant language, bilingual education, at its best, is focused on educating all students with at least two languages. Education programs are products of labor, and a major factor in determining their value is therefore the amount of useful labor they embody and require. Education programs, in this respect, are no different than other products of labor.

For example, take a pile of sticks. Take them as raw material and nail them together haphazardly into a chair. That chair will have little value beyond the value of the raw material because it embodies few labor hours. That is, the crude chair took very little labor hours and virtually no specialized skills to fashion. And it would be remarkable if that primitive chair were able to support a person, should they be forced, perhaps due to a lack of alternative, to sit on it, for even a very short time. However, take those same sticks, the same value in raw materials, and put them in the hands of a skilled craftsman, himself loaded with the value of hundreds of hours of training and experience, who in turn, puts them to the lath, to the planer, to the joiner, to all the tools and machines of the woodshop, all loaded with a tremendous amount of value (i.e. labor hours), fit them together with wood glue, clamps and a level, and, if aesthetically appealing, you will have a beautiful product able to support a person for a lifetime, perhaps many. This is the difference between bilingual education and ESL. So why would any reasonable society provide their children with an education that is not likely to support them, even for a short time? If the worth of a human life is only measured through the usefulness of its labor capacity to capital and biased with deep institutional racism and all manner of prejudice, then we can see how such decisions could be made. Why put value into a community capital has no current use for and is deeply criminalized and demonized from centuries of white supremacy?

We therefore need a logic for putting value into children through education programs that are loaded with the most useful labor power that rejects the logic of capital that supports putting value into children only when it makes economic sense to the capitalist.

Thinking beyond capitalism, we must demand the best education, so workers are better equipped to fight oppression, exploitation and the system that is really only capable of seeking ever-greater profit, or returns off of investments in labor power. In other words, workers need the best education so we can create a movement with highly trained and qualified leaders who know the best education is the education for a society where people and our ability to labor are not reduced to commodities purchased in order to expand the capitalists’ value or to facilitate that process (i.e. necessary but unproductive labor).

This rethinking of why education is important, in turn, provides us with tools to critique bourgeois rhetoric. Remember, at the same time we were told we have to settle for a substandard education in Pennsylvania because of an economic crisis, oil frackers and gas drillers were handed millions of dollars in tax breaks, no recession for them apparently (and this pattern is repeated globally). Governor Wolf seems to be on the right side here, at least when it comes to properly funding public education and increasing fracking taxes, even if it’s only 5 percent, which the frackers of course scream bloody ruin because they do not want to let one penny of potential profit go. The State Senate must be made to feel compelled to support Wolf’s proposed budget, and there is a bill for a more equitable distribution of education dollars throughout the state. AROS-PA is doing a commendable job here, and it has been an honor and a privilege to join and support their efforts.

For now, we can ask, one last time, yet again, for more money to restore old levels of funding. We can even tell the state it will be good for capital to have more efficient and obedient workers, the product of a well-funded public education system. Through our campaigning and grassroots messaging we might say:

So come on, old buddy, old pal, let’s go ahead and do the right thing, and not let a few greedy education capitalists ruin the quality of workers for the rest of the honest capitalists just trying to do what is right.

And if we are successful and we get the funding, we can’t forget this was just a battle; the war rages on. We will have to turn around and continue to struggle to ensure that that education is put to use not to increase test scores that tend to encourage a low cognitive level of development, but to train, through a critical and rigorous education, a generation of radical leaders who understand:

  • How capitalism will always lead to the premature exhaustion and death of the laborer unless it is regulated or slowed down by working-class resistance.
  • A generation who understands the role of productivity and the changing composition of capital in the historical quest to accumulate surplus value, and that one of the first steps in abolishing exploitation is the abolition of surplus labor time, and that can only happen internationally, and thus the true rallying cry of all workers continues to be, workers of the world unite.
  • A generation who understands fully that the complete emancipation of all workers can only happen with the abolition of capitalism. No levels of exploitation are acceptable, and even the kind capitalists, when the going gets tough, will be either reined in by the internal laws of capital that act as an external coercive force on individual capitalists, or they will be swept aside as more disciplined capitalists seize the moment.

In short, we need an education that trains a generation to be under no illusions about the nature and intent of capital, and that real justice is not possible within its structural limits. This generation is the generation that will create the world the world deserves. This generation is you. The time is now. The place is everywhere.