Moving In The Wrong Direction With Budget Priorities
In recent years GOP political domination of legislative bodies – at both Congress and State government levels – has led to budget crunches and crises at institutions of great import to our society as a whole. Cutting tax rates for the wealthiest among us, as well as for large corporations has resulted in both revenue shortfalls and massive spending cuts in efforts to balance budgets to offset those revenue shortfalls. The effects on one vital social institution – public education – is threatening to destroy that institution entirely and increase both economic inequality and inequality of opportunity on a massive scale. The move to cut spending on public education cannot be allowed to progress to the point where K-12 education becomes as tied to family finances as Higher Education has become.
Education has long been touted in this country as a means of achieving upward economic and social mobility. Providing quality education for all, regardless of the economic and social standing of one’s parents, has been seen as an equalizer when it comes to providing the opportunity to gain employment in jobs that provide career paths which will provide financial stability for young people starting out or older workers transitioning to new career opportunities as they develop or old ones become obsolete. Since schools have traditionally been run at the local level and funding has been largely local as well, state assistance became necessary to level the playing field between localities where wealthier people reside and those whose families were less economically fortunate, due to circumstances beyond the control of the children/students themselves. Seems only fair.
My parents’ generation did a fairly good job of providing this opportunity up to the point of High School graduation. College education and beyond have been markedly different in this regard, though state and land grant colleges and universities, as well as community colleges have received state and federal money to provide financial aid for students of modest means to further their education beyond high school. Embarrassingly, my generation as a whole seems to not share the willingness shown by previous generations to ensure good education for all our children.
More and more, the cost of post-secondary education has been shifted from government (and hence, all taxpayers) to the students themselves and/or their families. In the past, much of the cost of tuition, room and board, and other living expenses was covered in the form of financial aid comprised largely of state and federal grants, work study, and as a last resort, low interest government backed student loans. Gradually, as costs rose, the share of financial aid taking these forms has dropped and that of student loans has risen dramatically. While state and federal funds, in the forms of grants, scholarships and work/study programs have have been reduced drastically, total costs have increased. Students earning degrees who would have graduated with little or no personal debt a generation ago are now facing tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt to repay over the course of many years.
Enter the realm of public primary and secondary education. While our economic system has increasingly come to glorify for-profit private enterprise conducted with a minimum of government oversight and regulation over publicly-funded and regulated operations, pressure has increased to run educational institutions in the same manner as corporations – where the goal is to benefit shareholders at the expense of the general public or those employed by them. The same has long been the case with our health care system, which has totally come off the rails to the point where it has become twisted in knots trying to maximize profits while still pretending its main goal is a healthy populace.
Teachers’ Unions, like most public sector unions, have come under increasing attack in what seems to be an ever-increasing percentage of states. Teachers are seen as the main enemy of cost control in education these days. Worker rights for teachers are coming under attack in many forms. In my state, PA, many districts have teachers who have been working without a contract for more than a year. Striking is a limited option, as, by law, the teachers cannot strike for longer than the days could be made up to allow for the school year to end by a fixed date with a required number of school days held. Pressure is there to cut budgets by taking it out of teacher salaries, or by increasing teacher contributions for health care or other benefits (another salary cut, in effect). If that is not enough to balance the books, teacher or support staff layoffs come into play – increasing class size and/or curtailing programs or ending them entirely.
Raising more revenue, either by way of the property tax (which many localities have as their only way of raising revenues for this purpose) or state aid, is often seen by the politicians (including school boards) as unthinkable. With state legislatures drastically cutting their funding for public schools, the local school districts are getting hammered financially from all directions. Every state is different on this score, but the ones that seems to place the least priority on public education are those run by Republican legislatures and/or governors. PA has cut state funding of public schools as well as higher education for years now. Even when Ed Rendell served as governor prior to the Tea Party revolution in 2010, he was signing budgets making these sorts of cuts. The situation got worse when the Republicans took over both branches in 2010, and hasn’t really improved with the removal of Republican Governor Tom Corbett in 2014, as the legislature is still GOP-controlled. The governor has vetoed budgets, but that has caused problems of a different nature, as local school districts have resorted to borrowing money to maintain services – costing them even more in interest owed on the loans.
The PA economy should be booming, given the fracking natural gas boom of recent years, but the Corbett administration bent over backwards to under-tax the companies that came in to extract the gas. Small amounts have been paid to somewhat alleviate the strain being added to infrastructure, but not nearly enough to even pay for the environmental damage being done by the fracking, let alone helping us out of the current budget crisis. A higher priority placed on achieving quality education for PA’s school children would be money better spent than continuing to coddle big business not paying their fair share of taxes. Other states have it even worse than we do. Kansas comes to mind, where the governor and legislature have drastically cut taxes on the wealthy and taken much of it from education, to the point where their Supreme Court has even deemed the budget to be unconstitutional in that it inadequately funds the schools.
Education is not only a benefit to the people receiving it. It benefits society as a whole in terms of productivity and resourcefulness of workers once they have earned their diplomas/degrees/certificates. Business and industry, as well as the wealthy among us, all benefit from having a well-educated citizenry. Education should be a right, not a privilege to be earned by spending one’s own money to fatten the bank accounts of freeloading businesses – especially if those businesses are for-profit so-called educational institutions or banks shelling out loans to students and/or their parents to attend them. The movement for privatized higher education is far more advanced than is that for primary and secondary education, but that is where much of the impetus for privatization of education resides now.
Charter schools, often for-profit, employing non-union teachers, are competing in some areas with public schools for taxpayer dollars. In some areas, public schools are being forced to consolidate or are closing so that scarce resources can be used to fund these private schools. They can squeeze out profits at the expense of their employees as well as the students and their families, without raising taxes on property or incomes. Inequality of opportunity in education is exacerbated, which means further increases in economic inequality in the future.
Just as our health care system, driven as it is by greed and private profit, favors those at the top of the economic pyramid at the expense of the rest of us, our educational system is increasingly doing the exact same thing. Neither health care nor education should be based on the ability of a human being to pay money for it. Private wealth should not automatically mean that one person gets a better education than someone else, nor should it determine by itself the course of medical treatment one receives. We need to stop this movement to privatize for personal aggrandizement the goods and services which we all deserve equally by means of our mere existence as members of the human race. Get business out of both health care and education to make a fairer and more just society.
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