Today’s confirmation of billionaire heiress Betsy DeVos as U.S. Secretery of Education strikes yet another blow against public schools in America, the children who attend them, and the teachers who keep them afloat. Make no mistake, this is the tip of the iceberg which has the potential to sink public schools across the country – in inner city, rural, and suburban communities alike. It will likely happen fast, as quickly and haphazardly as the rest of the pro-business Trump agenda has been rolled out.
Federal Dollars and Competition
To get a better perspective on what we may be facing in the next year or so, rewind to 2009. Public schools in New York were reeling from devastating budget cuts due to the great recession. Foreign languages were taking a hit and arts programs were being devastated in New York City public schools. Across the state, public schools were forced to cut tens of thousands of positions as the state slashed funding and imposed the Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA). Simply put, the state was facing a budget gap and they eliminated it by taking money from school funding. The GEA became a permanent part of the state budget in 2011-12. (Although the GEA has formally been eliminated from the state aid allocations, the billions lost have yet to be repaid to schools and most schools haven’t completely recovered from the resulting cuts). In October of 2009, New York schools were faced with $1 billion (that’s with a ‘B’) in devastating mid-year cuts to education. There seemed to be no end in sight.
Then, in December of 2009, schools began to get wind of Race to the Top (RttT), a federal program that promised much needed education dollars but asked states to compete for federal funding in exchange for adopting so-called “reform” on the state level. New York was competing for $700 million in federal funding – they needed the money badly and everyone agreed they had no choice but to play along with the Feds. Everyone was on board, even NYSUT’s leadership seemed complicit in the plan to revamp education in New York. Local school districts and union leaders were asked to sign on to the plan and most did, although reluctantly. We didn’t know what we were getting but we knew we couldn’t afford not to win the RttT grant (or could we?).
What did we get? We got Common Core State Standards. We got a teacher evaluation plan based on junk science which held schools’ feet to the fire over student performance on poorly designed and and hastily implemented Pearson tests. We got Common Core curriculum modules which were rushed to print and, inexplicably, are still being used today in schools across the state even though the Pearson tests they were designed for have been cast aside. We got more standardization, more unfunded mandates, and less flexibility to provide children with the individualized education plans they deserve and desperately need.
So why is this Race to the Top history so important? The next blow to public education delivered by Trump and DeVos will strike us in the exact same way.
A “School Choice” Race to the Top
From a reform agenda perspective, Race to the Top was hugely successful and so very simple. The Feds couldn’t dictate education policy across the country but they could dangle a very big carrot in the form of federal funds. So be prepared for another RttT style competition. Here’s how it will play out.
Remember first that many states and local school districts are still hanging dangerously on the edge of financial crisis due to state aid limits and state’s property tax cap. That financial crisis is the critical first step to getting the states to comply with federal initiatives. In come the Feds with a big pile of money. All you have to do is implement a reform agenda that promises “choice” and “opportunity” for kids. The problem is that “choice” and “opportunity” are merely code words for charter schools and vouchers for parochial and private schools in every community. The next round of competitive grants will most surely be contingent on states implementing the Trump-DeVos agenda including:
- Removing the cap on charter schools in the state (currently at 460 in NY). Charters applications are not limited to the NY’s largest cities, this is not just an inner-city problem. You’ll start to see charters pop up in your town and county. They’ll probably take the form of regional magnet schools for sciences and the arts. They might already be there waiting to pounce on local tax dollars.
- Implementation of “school choice” voucher bill in the legislature. This may take the form of vouchers for private school tuition or a tax credit for school tuition. Either way, vouchers and credits siphon taxpayer money from the local public schools leaving them to cut teachers and programs to survive. They are a one-way ticket to austerity and cuts no matter how big your school’s coffers are.
- Attacks on teachers’ rights to organize and unionize. It happened in Wisconsin where the right for public school teachers was taken away by the state legislature and Governor Scott “Union Busting” Walker. It could happen here in NY too under the guise of a financial or education crisis.
And let’s face it, all of these attacks on public schools are really just attacks on the teachers’ unions. The public school system is the last great vestige of publicly funded, progressive programs that grew out of 20th century society. They are successful in New York because communities are committed to quality schools staffed by highly-qualified, experienced teachers. Yes, those teachers benefit from their unions, collective bargaining of contracts, and due process (tenure), but so do the kids they serve and the communities in which they work. Every other public works program in our country, from transportation to healthcare, has been raided by privatization. Trump and his business cronies are salivating like Pavlov’s dogs at the chance to get their grubby paws on your tax dollars, and today Vice President Pence rang the bell for supper with his tie-breaking vote for DeVos’ confirmation.
What Our Schools Will Look Like
As charters are pushed on New York’s communities and public dollars freely flow to religious and country club private schools, public schools will be faced with the same difficult decisions they faced in 2009-2012 but on a much larger scale- what programs and teachers to cut. Many schools have already been through this, so no one should be surprised. What will cuts look like in your district? Here’s my top-10 list of cuts you should look for in your schools.
- Elementary Classroom Teachers: This is often the easiest cut to make. Sure, class sizes may increase (already at 25? Why not bump it up to 30…in kindergarten?), but parents won’t have a clue until they show up for meet-the-teacher night in September and see all those desks crammed into the classroom. Or maybe not until February when they have to buy valentines for their child’s classmates. Better get two packs.
- Librarians: School districts often place the library at the center of their schools, both educationally and architecturally, as they should. Many argue, rightfully so, that reading and literacy are the keystones of learning. But schools don’t have to have trained librarians running those programs, they can get away with one librarian servicing many schools or lesser trained teacher aides managing book exchanges. It’s not the same.
- School Nurses: School nurses don’t just hand out band-aids and comfort upset stomachs. They administer medication, monitor blood sugar, conduct lice checks (regularly), perform catheterizations, and monitor and report sicknesses to public health agencies. Would you want untrained personnel performing any of these tasks on your son or daughter?
- Middle School Foreign Language: LOTE programs will get hit hard in the next round of cuts. Schools will be forced to eliminate middle school classes and possibly reduce offerings to just one language. Why is French so important anyway in New York? It’s not like it was a major language in our state’s history.
- School Social Workers and Psychologists: Schools tend to so much more than just academic learning for kids. Social workers and psychologists are essential to a healthy learning environment for kids who are facing hardship and trauma at home or are identified as students with disabilities. Caseloads for these essential personnel will start to balloon and kids will suffer because they just won’t have the access they need to these programs.
- High School Elective Courses: Schools around the state have already cut so many elective courses in high school that students have trouble filling out their senior year with credits. Some schools are even offering late arrival and early dismissal options for juniors as well as seniors just to get them out of over-crowded study halls and free periods.
- Music Programs: If your child is lucky enough to have elementary music once a week or instrumental lessons in the fourth grade, don’t count on it for much longer. Elementary instrumental music programs will be moved to middle school (the way they do it down south in Texas and Florida) and special area classes will be stretched out over 6-7 day rotations so one teacher can cover 1/3 more classes. The result will be children actually only seeing the art or music teacher maybe once every two weeks.
- Middle School Sports: The rubber hits the road in middle school – kids need high quality programs to enrich their learning, develop their social skills, and help lay the foundation for high school. Districts just won’t be able to field multiple teams. Two modified basketball or soccer teams? Sorry, not this year. Other sports may disappear all together. They’ll argue that kids often have opportunities outside of school at the club level. If you want to play, you’re gonna have to pay.
- Busing: Schools will be forced to cut their transportation budgets in light of potentially volatile fuel prices. It’s just too hard to budget and guarantee busing for students living close to schools and for sports teams. Expect the distance students have to walk to school to increase as well, even for the youngest children.
- Enter Distance Learning and”Individualized Instruction”: Schools are already investigating distance learning options for advanced placement courses who’s numbers may be too low to justify. Those options will increase and the number of students serviced will go up dramatically as will “individualized” programs based on plugging kids into web-based learning apps.
Could you see these cuts happening in your local public school? I bet you can, maybe you’ve already seen it. Is this what you want our public schools to look like? I bet not.
In my next blog post, I’ll weigh in on what we can do to protect our public schools and which politicians we’re going to have to fight to make it happen. It’s not who you think.