Tuesday, November 13, 2012

What should be done instead of pushing our kids off the "fiscal cliff"

Update: Please sign our petition to the President and the Congress NOW!

I know; the words “fiscal cliff” probably fills you with the same mixture of dread and ennui as it does me.  But let’s take a moment and focus on the decisions the President and Congress have to make in the next few weeks to address the yawning deficit. Unless they make the right choices by January 2, huge across-the-board cuts to critical education and other domestic programs will be automatically triggered, causing irreversible harm to our nation’s children, and putting our slowly recovering economy into a massive tailspin.
What would these automatic cuts mean for our public schools?  $5 billion would be slashed from the federal education budget; which would plunge to pre-2003 levels, despite the fact that there are now 5.4 million more public school students.   This would lead to sharply increased class sizes and fewer services for children who are already suffering from some of the largest classes in decades.
New York City would lose nearly $75 million from its education budget, mostly from Title One programs that go our highest-poverty schools, Title II, which helps keep class sizes as small as possible, Title III, which subsidizes programs for immigrant youth and English language learners, and IDEA (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) which provides funding for special education services.
At the same time as class sizes have already sharply risen, there are also more economically disadvantaged children than before, who desperately rely on this funding to even out inequities in local and state funding and provide them a better opportunity to learn. Our national child poverty rate has risen to a stunning 23 percent.  
No one should consider cutting any of these programs; and even Mitt Romney during the third Presidential debate said he wouldn’t consider cuts to education if elected.  But this is the future we’re facing unless the President and Congress make the right choices now.
If our elected officials are truly dedicated to cutting fat out of our education budget, they should first target some of the Department of Education discretionary grant programs that amount to more than $2 billion.  These programs, designed to persuade states and districts to adopt more standardized testing and expand merit pay and online learning, are increasingly opposed by voters on the left and the right, who rejected them at the polls last week in several states.
Yet under the administration’s proposed budget, funding for its controversial “Race to the Top” program would actually grow, as well as other competitive grant programs.    If Congress wants to save money, let them start with these programs first, contained in the administration’s proposed education budget:

·         Cut the $850 million that the administration wants to spend on yet another round of “Race to the Top” grants,  which promotes more high-stakes testing, unreliable teacher evaluation schemes based on test scores, and privatization at the expense of improving classroom conditions. Even the National Academy of Sciences opposed “Race to the Top”, pointing out how tying teacher evaluation to test scores was inherently risky and unreliable. 
·        Eliminate $400 million for the Teacher Incentive Fund, which expands merit pay and other unproven compensation schemes that teachers themselves overwhelmingly oppose and have never been shown to improve schools.
·         Subtract $150 million to be spent on the Investing in Innovation (i3) program, and $383 million from the district “Race to the Top” grants,  primarily focused on yet more testing, merit pay, and online learning.   Online learning has been touted by the administration and private industry as a way to “personalize education,” though putting students on computers emphasizes rote learning and denies them the opportunity to debate and exercise the critical thinking skills that only interaction with a teacher and other students can provide.  
·         Cancel or radically reform the School Improvement Grants (now renamed School Turnaround Grants), funded at $536 million, which impose the same rigid and punitive models that have sparked vehement protests from parents, students and teachers in communities throughout the country.  These include mandating school closings, conversion to charter schools, outsourcing management to private consulting companies, and/or firing half of the teaching staff, which have led to more chaos and "churn" in schools serving our most at-risk children. 

What else should the President and Congress do, to prevent damaging cuts to education and other domestic programs? The wealthiest Americans and private equity should be required to pay their fair share, of course.  This, plus ending corporate loopholes that allow companies like GE and Verizon to get away with paying no federal taxes, would raise approximately $1.5 trillion.  
There is no doubt that we need a  more equitable tax system in this nation, and these measures might also moderate the widening income gap and level the playing field that is undermining our democracy.  Raising taxes on corporations, hedge funds, and upper income individuals would not only create more revenue, but would also help restrain the ability of the richest Americans to use their private wealth to impose even more corporate-style policies on our schools.  
Last week in Washington State, for example, ten billionaires spent nearly eleven million dollars to get a charter school initiative approved, despite the fervent opposition of the State PTA, the NAACP, the League of Women Voters, the State School Board Association, and many other good government and civil rights groups.  These organizations pointed out that instituting charter schools would divert millions of dollars from the state’s public schools, which are already constitutionally underfunded according to the courts, and would put public dollars into private hands, with less oversight and accountability. 
Unfortunately, these billionaires were able to get their way by outspending the opposition by more than 16 to one, and the charter school initiative was approved by less than two percentage points.
If we are going to strengthen our public schools, we need to fund them properly and implement proven reforms. Encouraging democracy to flourish through a more equitable tax structure would  help us achieve these goals.

No comments: