Teachers and the Economic Crisis

Call me cynical.  But when I first met with my student teacher, we had The Talk.  Are you sure you want to go for certification to teach French and Italian?  Have you thought about certification in Spanish?  Or perhaps a different career track?  Don’t get me wrong—I think she has the qualities to make a great teacher.  She just chose the wrong time to get into the profession.  Or, for that matter, to be born.  Similarly with my students who express an interest in the teaching profession.  Really?  Have you thought about pharmacy or engineering? How about trash collecting?  No stigmatization as a social parasite in that profession!

But then, what teacher is encouraging young people to go into the profession now?  The reason for our collective malaise is fairly simple to locate: the public sector, and teachers in particular, have been under a sustained economic and ideological attack for at least the last three years.  I think it’s not hyberbolic to state that there is now underway a serious program to fundamentally restructure teachers’ working conditions and wages, with disastrous results for teachers at all points within their careers—not to mention the damage it does to students through increased class sizes, narrower curriculum and elective offerings at the secondary level, and a teaching staff that is ever more under the gun to enforce the testing juggernaut on students.

The Big Picture

Two economic reports published earlier this month shed light on this situation.  These reports provide the background to the downward spiral to the economy, the maelstrom that teachers are being sucked into.  Of course, not just teachers—this is a massive crisis affecting all sectors of the working class—but the microcosm of teachers is enough to illustrate the twisted logic of the system.

In a report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Phil Oliff and Michael Leachman bring out the devastation wrought by budget cuts to schools.  This is stunning: “Elementary and high schools are receiving less state funding than last year in at least 37 states, and in at least 30 states school funding now stands below 2008 levels – often far below.”  The report goes on to chart just how severe these cuts have been, and how devastating for local districts, which on average rely on states for almost half their funding.  I won’t go into the details—you can and should read the report for yourself—but suffice it to say, this reduction in state funding has hit poor and urban districts the hardest.  The report is quite sharp in its critique—that this reduction to the poorest districts has hit right as those districts are seeing an exacerbation of the poverty in them, i.e. right when they need a real boost in funding.  And also: all the laid-off teachers means less consumer spending in an economy that desperately needs consumers to start spending.

The other report comes from Heidi Shierholz at the Economic Policy Institute.  As part of a broader report on the dire state of job growth (or lack thereof), she outlines the damage done to the educational sector:

Almost half (-278,000) of the decline in state and local government jobs was in local public  education, which is largely jobs in public K-12 education (and the majority of workers  in public K-12 education are teachers, but there are also teacher aides, librarians, guidance counselors, administrators, support staff, etc.). On the other hand, over the same period, public K-12 enrollment increased by 0.6 percent (using the actual and projected enrollment growth rates found in Table 1 here). Just to keep up with this growth in the student population, employment in local public education should have grown at roughly the same rate, which would have meant adding around 48,000 jobs. Putting these numbers together (i.e., what was lost plus what should have been added to keep up with the expanding student population) means that the total jobs gap in local public education as a result of the Great Recession and its aftermath is around 326,000 jobs.

This decline means not only larger class sizes, but also fewer teacher aides, fewer extra-curricular activities, and a narrower curriculum for our children. Furthermore, this number almost surely understates the real gap. Between 2008 to 2010, the number of children living in poverty increased by 2.3 million, and is likely even higher today. Increased child poverty increases the need for services provided through schools. Instead, public schools have fewer personnel and fewer resources to educate more students, and more students with greater needs.

Back in Rhode Island

The CBPP report might actually make you glad you live in Rhode Island and not, say, California or South Carolina or New Mexico.  But it has not been pretty.  Let’s look at the data from 2007 vs. 2010 to 2011.  The first thing to note is that we’re up from last year: state spending on education in 2010 increased by 2%, or roughly $94 per student.  But on closer inspection, we are still down 4.4%, or $219 per student, since 2007.  So we may have bounced back between last year and this year, but that means that the bottom was even lower–$313 per student in cuts last year compared to 2007.

But what of our lovely Fair Funding Formula?  I described the outcome of the formula in a snarky way in my letter to Arne Duncan back in May, but I think the basics of it hold true: urban districts got a small boost, but not enough to get them out of crisis; certain suburban districts, especially the regionalized ones, got hit very hard (Central Falls, stunningly, also falls into this category); and Barrington got a big reward for providing more than 90% of its school funds from local property taxes, certainly a luxury that not all communities could afford.  Kevin Faria analyzed the formula on his blog some time back; it’s worth the read to catch up on the formula.  The main flaw is that the formula assumes that the pie does not need to be bigger, or that it cannot be bigger; it simply gets divided differently, with the benefits to some districts far less than the devastation to others.

Then there’s the question of recent contracts and the restructuring of teacher compensation across the board.  I wrote a couple months ago about the contract pattern emerging in the state: pay freezes for the next couple of years, combined with a restructuring of the step system, such that pay scales that used to be ten steps will now be eleven or twelve, as in Cranston and Providence.  In one anonymous district, there’s even talk of fourteen steps—and a different fourteen step scale for hires starting next year.  All of this is not even to talk of the increases in health care, the freezing or eliminating of stipends for advanced degrees, the restructuring of schools to eliminate positions, the impact of the new evaluation system, etc.  Add on to all this the massive attack on teacher of public employee pensions, and we’re looking at the outright impoverishment of a whole category of workers who used to think they were guaranteed something more than misery in their old age.

In short: what we are looking at is an epochal restructuring of the entire public education system on a basis that cheapens the labor of educators and reduces the services offered to students.  It’s an attempt to do education on the cheap, using the economic crisis as an excuse for deeper and deeper cuts.

Solutions, anyone?

There’s one place I’d love to see solutions coming from, but I’m not holding my breath.  That’s the federal government.  A brief review of the record: the original American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009 did pump some real stimulus money into the economy, but that amount was small change compared to the scope of the crisis.  Plus, it was counterbalanced by the neoliberal side of the bill which dished out massive tax cuts to the same rich that Bush’s tax cuts had already made much more wealthy.  Later, when Obama had the chance to end the Bush tax cuts, he and the Congressional Democrats wouldn’t do it.  Last summer, the Education Jobs Fund was supposed to put $10 billion back in to schools—but just as with the bank bailout, there was ample evidence to the effect that the money was being hoarded for other uses, and not put back in to restoring cuts, rehiring teachers, etc.  Now, in the wake of the deficit deal which promises to destroy Social Security—something Bush could not do—we have so much bluff and bluster about needing new jobs legislation.  Sorry, but I don’t buy it.  Here’s a good critique of the b.s.

So if not there, whence a solution?  Well, the next place to look would be from the state.  The CBPP report also chides states for not finding new sources of revenue, i.e. not raising state taxes on the rich.  Of course, there is endless hue and cry about how bad it is for Rhode Island’s rich who pay so many taxes.  You know, those major contributors like GTECH and Fidelity Investments, or Jonathan Nelson, Providence’s resident billionaire whose wealth increased by $300 million last year.  Yeah, that guy is feeling the pinch of our state taxes, no doubt!  But instead, we have a treasurer and a governor (backed by the unions, who never seem to realize that they should give up backing any candidates at all and just make demands) who are laying the burden for the state’s economic woes…at the doorstep of the people who are taking pay freezes and cuts and getting laid off!  In this context, it’s unlikely that municipalities will be able to make up the difference.  They are already reeling from cuts to their state aid, and will likely be unable to raise much more in revenue from local property taxes when the real estate market is still in the dumps.

This all comes back to one thing: the necessity of resistance.  The Occupy Movement is opening up new vistas of political resistance to the austerity agenda that is being imposed on us.  I believe that there’s still a long way to go before this movement has the strength to stop the austerity agenda.  The example of Greece is both inspiring and sobering in this regard.  But for the first time since the onset of the economic crisis, ordinary working-class Americans are starting to break out of the shame of suffering in isolation, and to generalize from their own situation to society in general.  For years, we heard “TINA”: There Is No Alternative to the free market, privatization, neoliberalism.  Now, there is no alternative but to fight against the system.

So to that end, I would like to invite one and all to come protest Arne Duncan when he comes to visit Rhode Island next week.  There is much we could say about the rottenness of the man in charge of our nation’s educational system, but I’ll leave that for another day.  To be honest, I have a hunch that I’m going to get a “talking to” on account of my own participation in this effort.  Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised to be out of a job myself come next school year.  But that’s not going to keep me from fighting.  And now, finally, it looks like it’s not going to keep many more people beyond me from fighting, either.

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About riredteacher

I'm a foreign language teacher and socialist in Rhode Island.
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