Today federal policy in public education does not support equity and excellence. Federal programs like Race to the Top are pushing competitions with winners and also losers. The U.S. Department of Education is making econometric evaluation of teachers a requirement for states to receive waivers from onerous requirements of No Child Left Behind. And to qualify for Race to the Top, states had agree to privatization by removing caps on the authorization of new charter schools. These federal requirements and programs fail to address the root problems—poverty, inequality, unequal funding, and an achievement gap in place before children enter Kindergarten.
However, certain states and school districts have rushed to make matters worse for their public schools. According to a newsletter from Education Justice at the Education Law Center, this summer North Carolina “passed a budget that cuts almost $500 million from public schools and shifts taxpayer dollars to religious and private schools through vouchers, while also eliminating teacher job protection, increasing class sizes, and granting tax cuts to the wealthy.” North Carolina ranks low in per-pupil spending, distributes school funding unfairly, and ranks 48th of all the states in teacher salaries, and in all these areas its legislature has just made matters worse.
In Michigan, while the bankruptcy of Detroit has been making the national news, in a move that is relatively unknown outside the state, on July 22 through a new Public Act 96, the legislature dissolved two school districts, Buena Vista and Inkster, because of financial trouble. According to the Detroit Free Press, “Statewide, 55 school districts… are operating with a deficit. Under the law passed earlier this month, financially insolvent school districts that have between 300 and 2,400 students can be dissolved.” The paper’s editorial board condemned the move: “Michigan has lost sight of the fact that the primary purpose of a public school system is to educate kids… It’s no longer possible to even pretend that the way we fund school dsitricts makes sense… And how will kids in those communities get to the new districts that are expected to take them? The logistics alone are nightmarish to contemplate.”
In May, Philadelphia passed what was called a doomsday budget, with 3,783 staff laid off including counselors, assistant principals, librarians, nurses, along with elimination of art, music and co-curricular activities. After protesters staged a hunger strike to protest catastrophic state cuts to schools, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett restored some of the funding, but according to the Philadelphia Daily News, funding for schools in Philadelphia remains unclear just 40 days before school is scheduled to open: “This year, 40 days before the start of school, students face a dramatically altered school system. Ten percent of the district’s schools were closed. Nearly 10,000 students will be going to new schools, and few schools will not feel the impact of that change. Especially since those schools may have fewer personnel to run them… This , of course, is not the first crisis of funding that the school district has faced… thanks to routine cuts from the state. But the magnitude of the funding gap, on top of the realignment of the system, makes this a unique year.” Daniel Denvir who has extensively covered the Philadelphia crisis reports that Corbett’s rescue plan which depends on a 1 percent jump in the local sales tax, “is nothing less than a permanent increase in the city’s share of the school-funding formula, while the state escapes with no new investment.”
Finally there is Chicago, where the district laid off approximately 3,000 employees, nearly 2,000 of them experienced teachers. Writer and Chicago teacher Gregory Michie describes cuts that will devastate the very programs that have helped improve achievement in some of Chicago’s schools. He has been involved in a wave of protests across that city: “What provides a measure of hope, though, in places like Chicago and Philadelphia… is that so many teachers, parents, students, and community activists are refusing to simply accept this misguided direction for our schools. In increasing numbers, people are speaking up, doing grassroots research, organizing, fighting back.”
Protesters in school districts across the country are beginning publicly to lift up a problem that has been ignored in all the recent buzz around test scores and achievement gaps and whether teachers are at fault and whether charters can make enough difference: state school funding systems that too often do little to help struggling school districts. The Nation recently covered Moral Monday protests being led in Raleigh by the Rev.William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP. Barber has folded the issue of educational inequity into protests against a web of punitive policies in a state that, according to The Nation, has “personified the hard-right shift in state capitols across the country…. So far this year, legislation passed or pending… would eliminate the earned-income tax credit for 900,000; decline Medicaid coverage for 500,000; end federal unemployment benefits for 170,000 in a state with the country’s fifth-highest jobless rate; cut pre-K for 30,000 kids while shifting $90 million from public education to voucher schools; slash taxes for the top 5 percent while raising taxes on the bottom 95 percent…” “We believe North Carolina is the crucible,” says Rev. Barber. “If you’re going to change the country, you’ve got to change the South. If you’re going to change the South, you’ve got to focus on these state capitols.”