Saturday, May 27, 2017

Should we care…?



Should we care about educating students who have diagnosed disabilities? Should we care about providing equitable educational opportunities to poor children? Should we care about teacher and principal quality? How about immigrant or migrant children? Or homeless and foster youth? For the past 50 years, our nation has made a commitment to those children at the margins, and more, through legislation and regulations as a result of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which has been reauthorized every five years. Archimedes famously said that he could move the earth with a lever and a place to stand.  For education, ESEA has been that lever and footing.  If you want to see what impact that has on Washington state schools, look here:

 


 

Please. Go to that site and look at what this act funds. It's a lot, isn’t it? We have evolved as a nation to continue to support the most vulnerable while making a commitment to education as a force for equity and opportunity. While the substance of legislation has changed (Bush II's version was No Child Left Behind and Obama's was the Every Student Succeeds Act), and politicians have disagreed with what actions are best, there has been one, critical credo that all legislatures and all presidents have supported for over 50 years: Public education must be maintained for all children. Until now.

 

Now that the Republican Party controls two branches of the federal government (and some argue, the third), they are letting loose with a barrage of initiatives to dismantle the nation’s march to a more equitable system of education.  The current Republican actions toward education range from the inane to the insane.  With the introduction of House Bill 610, Steve King (the Iowan legislator who shares that famous name, and whose writing would produce real horror stories), requests the complete removal of the 50-year commitment to all of the nation's children. This bill, in its first line, repeals the ESEA, thus eliminating all of what you read at the site above.  King’s bill, and King, actually, aren’t taken seriously by anyone but extremists, so it has little current chance of ever getting anywhere.  In contrast, the president’s proposed budget that eliminates many of the programs funded in ESEA seems mild.  But don’t confuse its intent because it isn’t as draconian as what someone like Steve King wants.

 

The president’s first budget portends the directions that he wants to take public education.  As expressed in what gets eliminated and newly funded, that direction shifts the balance between the wealthy and poorest.  The result will eliminate what has taken multiple generations of legislative action to create. Under the banner of “choice,” this budget eliminates successful efforts to support education for all.  The one common thread among all of these efforts is that they eliminate requirements for serving students who are poor, who need support, who may be homeless, or who attend schools that need better trained teachers.  Instead, we would let the marketplace resolve the issues of these people. 

 

I’m not anti-free-market.  When I need to buy a refrigerator, I appreciate the ability to shop around and to get a good deal – as much as that is possible with the consolidation of manufacturers which have absorbed the many brands that existed a few years back. Free markets assume that the self-interests of the company and my own self-interests will reach an accommodation that achieves both of our aims.  The company gets a profit, and I get a refrigerator with features I want at a price I can afford. 

 

That idea breaks down in thinking about social services, and modern societies have learned that lesson over the past 100 years as we’ve found that the interests of people, especially marginalized people, are often forgotten if the powerful are left unimpeded.  I’m old enough to recall Bobby Kennedy’s reaction to what he found in Appalachia when he visited the people there who’d been completely forgotten and of whom he wrote:

 

In nearly every place, especially rural communities, where we found a severe unwillingness to help the poor, we also found, and not always because of ethnic differences, a pocket of feudalism in America: a local power structure committed to perpetuating itself at all costs and unwilling to countenance the slightest improvement in the lives of the excluded, for fear they would gain the confidence and the wherewithal to overturn the status quo at the ballot box. Elected officials, judges, police officers and sheriffs, and local bankers and business people were always ready to use any tool necessary to quash dissidence whenever it appeared.

 

Sound familiar almost 50 years later?  A society that does not hold the powerful in check gets the kind of feudal totalitarianism that Kennedy described.  Through American history, when we forget those checks against the avarice of the wealthy and powerful, we’ve had to be reminded of what happens when we let the market decide about the social well-being of all people.  Does anyone remember why we developed anti-trust laws, or labor laws, or environmental laws?  It’s because we wanted to protect the powerless.  We began the experiment of democracy in this nation over 200 years ago with most of the people in the nation disenfranchised.  With time, we have reached toward the egalitarian promise of our founding. 

 

A market-driven system of social services means that the powerful will remain powerful and that the poor will remain poor.  Unlike my purchase of a refrigerator, there isn’t any choice for the poor when choosing a social service like education.  In this marketplace, the poor are told that the refrigerator choices are for people with money and they should be satisfied with a melting block of ice.  After all, this logic suggests, the people with resources earned what they have, and it’s only the fault of the poor that they didn’t earn more.

 

The idea that vouchers will even the playing field is an embarrassing joke on the working class and impoverished.  As the Washington Post noted, in 2013 school spending per student averaged almost $11,000 annually and the range was almost $20,000 at the top and $6,500 at the bottom.  As the information compiled by Great Schools notes, none of the voucher states and the District of Columbia come anywhere near providing funding that covers the amount paid per pupil in even the lowest cost state.  So it’s a cruel joke to say that anyone is evening the playing field because, in reality, vouchers are a subsidy for people who want to send their children to private schools.  It helps reduce their tuition costs.  This isn’t the marketplace.  It’s welfare for people who already have resources.

 

If you want to see where this downward spiral is headed, look at states Like Oklahoma that have been on this path for some time.  I know we’re in an age of disbelief of facts and a cynicism that pervades both our public and private discourses.  And I share some of the skepticism.  But without ESEA and the long march toward equitable participation that it encourages, the marketplace isn’t going to somehow magically change the dynamics of power and oppression that have drove us to create laws like ESEA.  So before we start dismantling a system that has evolved in order to be more inclusive and equitable, let’s take a pause and ask why we would change the trajectory of inclusion that has driven us to create the laws and regulations that have taken a half century to develop.