Students, teachers and working families are paying dearly for a recession they did not create. Historic cuts to public education, along with other social services, continue while the rich get tax cuts and war coffers overflow.
This year, California terminated $3 billion from school programs that served high-need students and illiterate adults, (www.cta.org, 2011). Even before the latest round of deep budget cuts, a February report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities detailed the devastating education cuts in almost every state. Arizona eliminated preschool and decreased funding for kindergarten by 50%. In Missouri, school bus service was slashed by 46%. North Carolina reduced funding to provide low-income schools with social workers and nurses by 21%, (“An Update on State Budget Cuts,” www.cbpp.org, 2/9/2011).
Children from low-income families will suffer most from the sweeping cuts to after-school activities, free and reduced lunch, transportation, special education, early intervention, counseling and other crucial services provided through schools.
According to the same report, higher education has also felt the ax in at least 43 states. Tuition at Florida’s state universities has been increased by 32% in two years. Michigan reduced financial aid by over 61% and scholarships and grants by 44%. Reductions in direct aid to public universities and community colleges in Washington state will further exacerbate staff layoffs, raise tuition into the double digits, and gut work-study programs by 33%.
The Real Culprits
Lawmakers like Washington state congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler have argued that budget cuts are the inevitable result of decades of government overspending: “The federal deficit threatens job creation today, and the futures of our children and grandchildren. ... It’s time to make difficult decisions, and establish a framework for responsible budgeting. ... Some popular programs will get less money than expected. ... But Americans are aware that we cannot stay on the path of overspending and achieve economic recovery,” (http://herrerabeutler.house.gov/).
Yet a growing consensus of even pro-capitalist economists echo socialists in warning that massive budget cuts and layoffs in the public and private sectors are only further depressing consumer spending. Ultimately, teacher layoffs and school closures put an even tighter squeeze on the economy by worsening unemployment and forcing already tapped-out families to pay more to meet their children’s basic needs.
Somehow, only when education and social services are at stake is it called “overspending.” When it comes to war, things are different. A study by Brown University estimates that the United States will end up spending between $3 and $4 trillion on the wars started since 2001, (http://www.watsoninstitute.org/news_detail.cfm?id=1536). Let’s try slashing bloated military expenditures and spare programs that actually benefit students and working families.
At the same time, top-earning corporations like General Electric, FedEx, Exxon Mobil and Ford continue to rake in billions of dollars in profits despite a recession, while paying nothing to very little in taxes and continuing layoffs. Dodging taxes is also a kindhearted way that a big bank like Bank of America repays working people for the $45 billion in bailout money it received as part of Obama’s Troubled Asset Relief Program. It’s time we make these corporations pay up so that we can fund our schools.
The budget crises are not from overspending on education and other vital programs, but from overspending on corporate welfare and foreign wars.
While the Democratic Party paints itself as a friend of teachers and a defender of public education, right-wing attacks on public education are carried out by both Republican and Democrat-controlled state governments. At the Federal level, the 2011 bipartisan budget deal - described as the largest-ever drop in U.S. domestic spending - cut education, health and labor most severely, (“Education, Health, Labor See Big Cuts in Budget Deal,” www.scpr.org, 4/12/2011). Year-round Pell Grants will be slashed to the tune of $493 million, yet the deal raises the Department of Defense budget from $508 billion to $513 billion, (http://democrats.senate.gov/2011/04/12/summary-of-bipartisan-budget-deal/).
On top of that, the new bipartisan debt ceiling deal will cut another $2.5 trillion in the next decade, slashing public education further.
Meanwhile, Obama’s Department of Education continues its financial incentives for states that promote privatization of public schools by introducing charter schools, attacking teachers’ unions, and increasing performance evaluations based on discredited high-stakes testing.
Struggle and Strategy to Defend Public Education
Cutbacks to education have not been implemented without resistance from outraged communities across the U.S. In Wisconsin, we saw student walk-outs and teacher sick-outs shut down over 30 school districts for days in opposition to Governor Walker’s union-busting and education-bashing budget bill: the largest uprising of U.S. workers in decades.
In March of last year, a coordinated day of action to defend education drew students, teachers, and campus workers into the streets in over 30 states. The movement centered in California, where student strikes and occupations, wild-cat teacher strikes, and other actions drew tens of thousands into action with substantial trade union backing. While the national days of action this March were smaller, the movement continues to develop with local campaigns against school closures and budget cuts sprouting up across the country.
Since we are all under the same ax, students, parents and workers from both the public and private sectors must continue to mobilize as a unified force to prevent further attacks. Grassroots anti-cuts movements must build for coordinated mass protests, direct actions, walk-outs and strikes to confront the corporate politicians’ agenda. A fighting strategy also includes mobilizing, democratizing and strengthening campus-based unions and K-12 teachers’ unions as a central force in wider student and community mobilizations. Crucially, these struggles must remain politically independent from both corporate parties.
The battle of Wisconsin has shown us that students and workers in the U.S. can fight. Let’s bring that same spirit of determination to our own schools and communities in defense of public education.