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What Progressives Can Learn From Public Education’s ‘Fiscal Cliff’

The ideological hard-heartedness permeating our countryu2019s political leadership hit public ed two years ago. There’s much to learn from how it played out there.

Public education’s fiscal cliff already happened.

The “austerity bomb” Paul Krugman warns us of in the New York Times was already dropped on public schools at least two years ago. And what impact the sequestration has on education is, in comparison, a ground assault.

This is not to make light of the 8 percent cut to education the sequester demands.

These cuts would likely have immediate negative effects on specialized programs such as career and technical education, Native American students, and students whose parents work on military bases or federal land. They could adversely affect funding of early childhood education (Head Start). They would eventually take a chunk out of the federal government’s Title I funding of school districts that serve the nation’s poorest children. And they would eventually significantly reduce funding for special education, a chronic need the federal government has never funded to the levels it promised.

What the austerity measures represent, however, is a much bigger and more urgent issue than the direct effects of the actual cuts. After all, the feds pick up less than 10 percent of the tab for the country’s education, and education amounts to less than one percent of the total federal budget.

What the cuts represent is the continuation of something bigger and more intentional — not a “shared sacrifice” or “necessary budget balancing” — but an ideological hard-heartedness that permeates our country’s current political leadership.

In other words, don’t believe the handwringing expressed by Republicans, and many Democrats, about the effects of the nation’s budget deficit on “future generations.”

These are not people who care about the future generation, at least judging by what they’ve been doing to schoolchildren who are, well, the future generation.

Let’s review . . .

Austerity Is Nothing New For Public Schools

A little over a year ago, a report published on this website, “Starving America’s Public Schools: How Budget Cuts and Policy Mandates Are Hurting Our Nation’s Students,” revealed that new austerity budgets passed by state legislatures were resulting in drastic cuts in direct education services to school children nationwide.

The effects of the cuts were immediately devastating to schools, especially in critical needs areas such as early childhood education, class size, arts, vocational, and physical education, and special services to children who have learning disabilities and whose first language isn’t English.

Robert Borosage wrote at the time of the report’s release, “The bankers who caused the mess got bailed out. The military budget exceeds Cold War levels. The richest 1 percent of Americans, who make as much as the bottom 60 percent of Americans, pay the lowest tax rates since the Great Depression. But our kids and their schools are paying the price for an economic mess they didn’t create.”

What’s Happened Since

Despite the severity of the cuts, the carnage didn’t stop.

The good folks at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities have kept on top of the funding trends and have observed that, for the 2012-13 school year, elementary and high schools were receiving less state funding than in the previous school year in 26 states, and “in 35 states school funding now stands below 2008 levels — often far below.”

CBPP analysts found that the cuts were by and large ideologically driven. Because states relied heavily on spending reductions in response to the recession, rather than on a more balanced mix of spending cuts and revenue increases, funding for schools and other public services fell sharply. Their conclusion was that “this level of budget-cutting is unnecessary and results, in part, from state and federal actions and failures to act.”

Wait, It Gets Worse

Not satisfied with taking art and music classes away from little kids, and school athletics and vo-tech opportunities away from adolescents, many of these very same state lawmakers struck deeper into the most vulnerable communities.

As a recent report from The Center for American Progress revealed, many states now have school aid formulas that have institutionalized the under-funding of schools serving the poorest children. The aid formulas, which were created to help equalize funding to schools, often times now do the opposite and tend to “exacerbate inequities in per-pupil spending rather than reduce them, and do so in a way that favors communities with the least need.”

The report identified a number of states “where state and local revenues are systematically lower in higher-poverty districts,” so “children attending school in higher-poverty districts have substantially less access to state and local revenue.”

The report concluded, “Eliminating these disparities must be a priority if our goal is to successfully educate this generation of children to compete and win in the global marketplace.”

A somewhat earlier but similar report, this one from the Education Law Center,asked “Is School Funding Fair?” Using four separate, but interrelated, “fairness indicators,” the report rated all 50 states on the basis of funding level, funding distribution, state fiscal effort, and public school coverage. What the analysts found was that “many states continue to unfairly allocate education funding relative to the needs of their most disadvantaged students and schools serving high numbers of those students.”

The report concluded, “Most states continue to neglect growing student poverty by failing to direct resources to the students and schools most in need. In some states and regions, the shortfalls in school funding are reaching crisis levels.”

So state governments are handling budget deficits, not by any real “shared sacrifice,” but by making poor kids the targets for cost cutting.

And this is justified how . . . ?

First The Schools, Then Everyone Else

What has happened to American public schools is now becoming every American’s problem.

Schools were vulnerable because the media generally ignores them (except to report erroneous information about how “very bad” they are), educators are a very isolated community (they work with kids all day long), and the population of parents who send children to public schools is increasingly minority, low-income, and politically un-empowered.

But conservatives can’t extract enough sacrifice from poor public school kids alone to meet their goal of bankrupting the public wellbeing. So now they’re taking their campaign to the federal government’s support for the working poor, the elderly, and people who are sick.

Unfortunately, too many Democratic leaders, Erskine Bowels for one, are eager to play along for all the wrong reasons.

As Krugman explained again, this time on Huffington Post, the fiscal freak-out going on in Washington DC “has nothing to do with the budget deficit.” But whereas Krugman consigns the fracas to “a dysfunctional political process,” the reality is that behind these austerity measures there are real actors who have real intent.

When political leaders pushed public schools over the real fiscal cliff, many Democratic officials looked the other way — or even joined in the shoving. The lesson for progressives is don’t ever, ever let them do that again.

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