Here is a thought that flies in the face of common sense: there is no budget crisis in education, even in the age of the Great Recession.
Sure, we in New York City are seeing more and more schools being shuttered. Bloomberg has closed over 100 schools in his 10 years as mayor, including 33 this year alone. Schools that have not been closed have seen their budgets drastically slashed, eliminating art, music and after school programs across the city. Students, teachers and parents get the same excuse from the Department of Education every year: a bad economy means we all have to tighten our educational belts.
Experienced teachers are a particular target because they have higher salaries. The public perceives them as making too much money, having too much job protection and being too lazy to provide a quality education to children. Average citizens who have been laid off scratch their heads in wonder over why these dead wood teachers are able to keep their jobs. There have been renewed cries to do away with teacher tenure, despite the fact the new New York State teacher evaluation agreement promises to do just that.
While students and their teachers are being squeezed, there has been more money flowing through the education system than ever before. President Obama’s most recent budget promises an influx of federal education funds. Legions of non-profit groups have showered money on certain schools and think tanks. Businessmen who were never involved with education before are joining the fight for education reform, using their fabulous wealth to impose their vision of what reform means.
On the local level here in New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has run a Department of Education known for handing out hundreds of millions of dollars in no-bid contracts. Between 2006 and 2009 alone, Bloomberg’s DOE handed out nearly 300 such contracts to select companies, an unheard of number in the history of New York City’s school system. This includes $83 million to Joel Klein’s Wireless Generation to operate the Achievement Reporting and Innovation Systems (ARIS) program, formerly run by IBM. This is despite the fact that half of the DOE’s staff has never used it and much less than that use it on any regular basis.
The new teacher evaluation agreement promises to pour gasoline on this no-bid contract wildfire. At the very least, we know that New York State will administer exams to every student in every grade for every subject. This is a tremendous expansion of the current regime of intermittent statewide testing. These tests will be devised and graded by outside contractors. Principals will also have to use a standardized rubric to evaluate teachers. This will allow principals to enter simple ratings for many different categories, a system that lends itself perfectly to more data mining by outside contractors. To top it all off, there is still the danger that a citywide exam will be part of the evaluations, which would require the city to place an order for another few million exams.
All of this is in a manic quest to evaluate teachers. Not one cent out of all of these millions of dollars that promise to be spent will go to educating a single child.
The State of New York created this state of affairs when they signed on to Obama’s and Duncan’s Race to the Top program. For the past few months, Duncan harangued New York to come to some sort of agreement on teacher evaluations or risk foregoing $700 million in federal education funds. Now that an agreement is in place, it is tough to imagine even one of those 700 million dollars going to the children of New York State. Duncan’s threat basically amounted to “come to a new teacher evaluation agreement fast, or else you will not have any money to pay for a new teacher evaluation.” The students, parents and teachers of New York have been had.
This is par for the course in education reform. The road was paved by Bush’s No Child Left Behind law, but it is being completed by Obama. Chances are that a Republican leader would not be able to get away with such a blatant handover of tax money to private interests. It would be decried for the cronyism it is. Only Democratic leaders could gain the type of public trust required to accelerate the privatization of the education system. Obama, Duncan, Michelle Rhee, Andrew Cuomo and even Mayor Bloomberg are all Democrats (Bloomberg only became a Republican after Rudy Giuliani had become “America’s Mayor” during 9/11. It allowed him to ride Giuliani’s coattails into office.) They are able to clothe their agendas in a concern for poor children. In reality, it is the poor children who are being squeezed the most.
The most blatant example of this is the charter school wave. Another part of Obama’s and Duncan’s Race to the Top is the opening of more charter schools. Bloomberg’s shuttering of over 100 public schools has been followed by the creation of more charter schools. Despite having much lower ratios of students with learning disabilities and English language learners than public schools; despite being able to “counsel out” disruptive students, unlike public schools; and despite their use of non-unionized teachers, charters have less than a 20% chance of outperforming public schools, and more than a 40% chance of underperforming.
Yet, these charters are able to advertise to parents using glossy mailers and subway posters. They are usually able to slap a fresh coat of paint over what used to be a public school. They have nifty corporate logos that inspire confidence in parents. Someone is getting a lot of money from all of this and it certainly is not the child who attends the charter school. In fact, chances are that children will end up paying regressive fines as punishment for acting up in class, like they do in Chicago.
Where does this money go? Just ask Eva Moskowitz, owner of the Success chain of charter schools here in New York. She pulls in nearly $400,000 a year, despite the fact that her schools are located inside the carcasses of shuttered public school buildings.
While Eva and people like her make boatloads of money from a burgeoning privatized schooling industry, there is still plenty of money to be made inside public schools themselves. Bloomberg’s drive to replace large high schools with smaller high schools has given rise to the need for more administrators. In NYC, even the lowliest administrator starts out at six figures. With the proliferation of small school academies, there has been a proliferation of six-figure salaries all over the city. There are people who get into teaching now just so they can get the minimum number of teaching years under their belts to become administrators. This includes graduates of the Leadership Academy, which costs over $70 million to operate. Needless to say, people cut from this cloth have very little knowledge of teaching and very little ability to improve the quality of instruction of their teachers.
As you can see, there is very little evidence of any budget crisis in education. The money is flowing into the system more furiously than ever. Yet, tenured teachers are being fired and their pensions are being squeezed. Children are losing their public schools, their enrichment programs and their sports. The neediest students and the lowliest workers in the education system are seeing their benefits disappear under the guise of necessary budget cuts in a weak economy. At the same time, principals, charter school operators and private contractors are receiving boatloads of government cash.
It is the education world’s version of Reaganomics. Reagan oversaw a vast and naked transfer of wealth upwards from the poorest people to the wealthiest. In the same way, education reform shakes down the most vulnerable people in the system in order to enrich the already enriched.
It has always been a mistake to say that schools are separate entities from the real world. Schools are a part of the real world, subject to the same socioeconomic forces that shape society at large. Just like the Great Recession in which we remain mired has seen a coagulation of wealth in the top tax brackets, the education system has seen a coagulation of wealth at the leadership level. Just like in the economy, education fails when resources do not flow throughout all levels. The education reformers are right: our schools certainly are failing, and it is they who are failing them.
Who will be the Franklin Roosevelt that brings a New Deal to the children of the United States?
It certainly will not be Obama, Duncan, Cuomo or any other so-called Democrat. Their push to force all children (except their own) to take bubble-in exams for 13 straight years will serve to turn learning in the United States into a series of decontextualized bits and sound bites. As Chris Hedges so eloquently writes, it is designed to ensure that our children go on to be non-thinkers and passive vessels, ever ready to be directed by their higher ups on what to do next.
There is no better way to solidify the savage inequalities that currently exist in our society than to create an education system that replicates those inequalities. There is no better way to perpetuate those inequalities than to train the poorest children among us to not be able to think past the next bubble to fill in.
Education reform is about training children to accept injustice as a fact of life. It is about training students to ignore that inner part with which we are all born, the one that looks at the world for what it is and has the audacity to say “something ain’t right.”
Something certainly is not right. The economy is so bad that the poorest schools have to cut their art and music programs, yet there is $83 million for the ARIS program? Teachers are harassed as lazy, tenured do-nothings, but Eva can make $400,000 a year for making glossy fliers and kicking out children she does not feel like educating?
Yes, education reformers seek to install moral blinders on children so they become incapable of seeing injustice when it is so blatantly in their faces. I am sure they would love nothing more than to give all the students who show up to protest Bloomberg’s school closings a few more bubble exams so they become as vegged out and amoral as most adults.