January 29, 2017

Time to protect public education

This is no time to be a turkey when it comes to our schools. This call to protect public education in  WV was written by my co-worker Lida Shepherd and appeared in today's Sunday Gazette-Mail.

There has been a lot of sad news recently in the Charleston Gazette-Mail about our schools. One example concerns Nicholas County, where Ryan Quinn reports that student enrollment has dropped 26 percent in the last 25 years, resulting in a severe loss in funding.

These cuts come on top of the devastating flood that ripped through the county’s schools last year.

In the shadow of our state’s budget crisis and the $11.1 million budget cut to state school-aid, teachers and administrators are being laid off in alarming numbers, with 73 positions in Kanawha County alone. It doesn’t take a big leap of the imagination to see that this means more people leaving the state to find work elsewhere, and taking their talent (and families) with them.

These ongoing budget woes also means more teachers pulling from their own pocket for school supplies, more students having to raise their own funds for extracurricular activities, bigger classroom sizes, more screen time, shabbier textbooks; and I’m not sure we’ll be seeing many Mandarin Chinese or fine arts classes being added.

For some people, these challenges make things like charter schools, vouchers and privatizing our public education system all the more alluring. Since the election, “education reform” or “educational choice” has gotten a major shot in the arm.

The late economist Milton Friedman would be pleased by this development. He thought the answer to the public education system was the private sector. In effect, this meant that public education was an untapped treasure trove whereby tax dollars can be siphoned out of public coffers and into private ones.

As Naomi Klein argued in her book “The Shock Doctrine,” Friedman and like-minded people were experts at taking advantage of natural or political catastrophes — from Hurricane Katrina to major economic crises — to push an agenda that would never fly in more stable times. She called this “disaster capitalism.”

The sad irony is that part of the reason our schools are suffering so badly now is because we failed to take steps 100 years ago that could have converted our natural resources into a public good. Instead, our coal seams were exploited largely for the private gain of out-of-state interests at the expense of any kind of economic diversification. As Jeff Kessler recently pointed out in an interview on W.Va. Public Broadcasting, “If coal’s been king, it hasn’t taken very good care of its subjects. We’re the poorest state in the nation.”

I fear we are poised to make the same kind of mistake by the weakening and/or privatization of our public education system through vouchers — Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) — charter schools and for-profit K-12 education. These efforts are becoming commonplace, supported by the steady rhetoric of “failed government schools” and “school choice.”

We now have as U.S. Secretary of Education nominee billionaire heiress Betsy DeVos, who never attended or taught at a public school and who has spent millions of her private wealth on campaigns to privatize education systems.

Corporate-backed education “reform” campaigns like the ones DeVos has waged (one to the tune of $5 million in Michigan) have normalized in public discourse what once was the radical idea that we turn the public good of our education system into a source of private profit.

Sometimes, these reforms are touted as “leveling the playing field” in public education so that the quality of education a child can receive is not dependent on his or her zip code; but Henry Levin, professor of economics and education at Columbia University, has found that both in the United States and abroad vouchers result in increased economic and racial stratification.

He also points out that most of our public discourse around what is best for equity and advancements in our educational system is based in ideology instead of evidence.

But what’s new? Calls for the privatization of the public sector are happening in Medicare and the health care system, education and, most recently housing, with HUD secretary nominee Ben Carson vowing to privatize sectors of our public housing system.

In spite of troubling national trends, I’m holding out hope that we don’t sell out the public education of our children in West Virginia. Such a step would go against the best traditions of West Virginia and would violate the spirit and letter of our state constitution, which mandates “the establishment of a thorough and efficient system of free schools.”

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