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U.S. Schools Breaking Down…Long, Slow Bleed…

July 17, 2011

Nicholas Kristof has a well written piece in yesterday’s New York Times, the title of the article is: Our Broken Escalator.

Kristof starts out by talking about how the United States supports schools in Afghanistan because we understand that educating people is one of the least expensive and most effective ways to help build a country.  Yet, here at home we have forgotten this message, or so Kristof says.

I am a bit more jaded on this topic.  I don’t think that we have forgotten this message, I believe there are plenty of people in our society today who fully understand what is at stake here at home if education cuts continue.  But, there is an entire cottage industry out there who have shifted the topic from doing all we can to educate our kids, to teachers and unions are enemies of education and they are bankrupting everyone.

Now, none of this is true, but it makes for a compelling argument when “you” have the solution.  These solutions put forth by reformers always include the same remedies: Vouchers, Charters, Union-Busting, Value-Added Teacher Assessment, More Testing, etc…

Let’s begin with Kristof as he recounts his childhood growing up in Oregon and talks about how important his school was to him:

My beloved old high school in Yamhill, Ore. — a plain brick building that was my rocket ship — is emblematic of that trend. There were only 167 school days in the last school year here (180 was typical until the recession hit), and the staff has been reduced by 9 percent over five years.

This school was where I embraced sports, became a journalist, encountered intellectual worlds, and got in trouble. These days, the 430 students still have opportunities to get into trouble, but the rest is harder.

For the next school year, freshman and junior varsity sports teams are at risk, and all students will have to pay $125 to participate on a team. The school newspaper, which once doubled as a biweekly newspaper for the entire town, has been terminated.

Business classes are gone. A music teacher has been eliminated. Class size is growing, with more than 40 students in freshman Spanish. “It’s like a long, slow bleed, watching things disappear,” says the school district’s business manager, Michelle Morrison.

The school still has good teachers, but is that sustainable with a starting salary of $33,676?

Sadly, this is a trend that is happening all across our great country.  All manner of subjects that are NOT part of the high-stakes testing zeitgeist are eliminated.  At the middle school where I taught special education two years ago we had an incredible wood shop.  In the shop all manner of great equipment was lying around dormant gathering dust, and the shop had actually been turned into a store room of sorts for desks and chairs and old computer equipment.

I asked my principal one day: “what were the odds that we could find the funding to open up the wood shop.”  He just looked at me and shook his head as if to say, “why ask me such a silly question?”  Most of my special education boys would have loved the opportunity to actually build something with their hands, sadly, none of them were afforded this chance.

In a rural, blue-collar area like Yamhill, traditionally dependent on farming and forestry, school has always been an escalator to opportunity. One of my buddies was Loren, a house painter’s son, who graduated as salutatorian and became a lawyer. That’s the role that education historically has played — but the escalator is now breaking down.

“Every year we say: ‘What can we cut? What can we reduce?’ ” said Steve Chiovaro, superintendent of Yamhill-Carlton schools. “We’ve gotten to the point where we can no longer ‘do no harm.’ We’re starting to eviscerate education.”

Yamhill is far from alone. The Center on Education Policy reports that 70 percent of school districts nationwide endured budget cuts in the school year that just ended, and 84 percent anticipate cuts this year.

In higher education, the same drama is unfolding. California’s superb public university system is being undermined by the biggest budget cuts in the state’s history. Tuition is set to rise about 20 percent this year, on top of a 26 percent increase last year, which means that college will become unaffordable for some.

The immediate losers are the students. In the long run, the loser is our country.

So very true, our students are the losers in all of this mess.  I have an idea, why don’t we stop giving subsidies to big oil, and ethanol growers?  While we are at it, we can close tax loopholes and off-shoring tax haven schemes, maybe we can cut back on all the bombs we drop on everyone – then we can fund education properly.  Our priorities as a nation have been hijacked by the military industrial complex and by a set of know-nothing TeaParty fanatics.

Still, we nation-build in Afghanistan and scrimp at home. How is it that we can afford to double our military budget since 9/11, can afford the carried-interest tax loophole for billionaires, can afford billions of dollars in givebacks to oil and gas companies, yet can’t afford to invest in our kids’ futures?

Sometimes I hear people endorse education cuts by arguing that “school isn’t for everybody,” which usually means something like “education isn’t for other people’s children” — or that farm kids in places like Yamhill really don’t need schools that double as rocket ships. I can’t think of any view that is more un-American.

Thanks for a good article Nicholas.  I just wish more people would wake up from their self-imposed American Idol stupor and see what is happening around them.


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