How Public School Budget Cuts Herald the End of Equality in the United States

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Mark Naison is a Professor of African-American Studies and History at Fordham University and Director of Fordham's Urban Studies Program. He is the author of three books and over 100 articles on African-American History, urban history, and the history of sports. His most recent book, White Boy: A Memoir, was published in the spring of 2002

Throughout the United States, the nation’s public school system is being savaged by budget cuts that will make a mockery of federal legislation designed to reduce the achievement gap between children in low-income and high-income districts. 

In Detroit, the school district has been told by the state to close half of its schools to close a $347 million deficit, leading to high school classes that could contain as many as sixty students.  Providence, RI just handed out pink slips to its nearly 2,000 teachers to reduce its deficit (although, in an astonishing feat of creative accounting, most—but not all—of the teachers are expected to be rehired); and Austin, TX may do the same in a response to a ten percent reduction in state funding.  And in thousands of school districts throughout the country, teachers are being fired, sports and arts programs are being shut down, AP classes are being cancelled, and class size is going through the roof while state and local governments radically cut education funding to balance their budgets.

Make no mistake about it, these budget cuts will have a disproportionate effect in the poorest school districts, where parents depend on schools to impart skills which, because of educational background or language issues, they often lack.  You cut arts and science programs in a upper-middle-class school district, parents will compensate by finding private tutors or funding additional classes through the PTA.  In poor neighborhoods, once such programs are gone, they are gone for good.   You can squeeze the teachers in poor districts all you want to produce magical results on test days; as opportunities to give students individual attention and special training in arts and science disappear, the test score gap will grow wider, the dropout rate will increase, and college admission from such districts will plummet.

What makes this a bitter pill to swallow that the dream these budget cuts will destroy was one nurtured by a Republican president, George W. Bush.  Never mind that the dream was based on false data from the Houston school district; never mind that it was used by politicians, business leaders and the media to divert attention from confronting sources of inequality outside the school system.  It is still held that every child in America has the right to a great education and an opportunity to attend college if they take advantage of that opportunity.

Now that very dream is in tatters, not just because of the decision elected officials made to cut public school budgets, but because of the decision they didn’t make:  to TAX THE RICH.  Make no mistake about it, in every state where these budget cuts are being made the vast majority could have been avoided if taxes were raised on the wealthiest five percent of the population, a group which controls nearly 40 percent of national income!  Yet in state after state throughout this country, as well as in Congress, such taxes were declared “off limits” by politicians of both parties.

Let us be very blunt about the consequences of this choice.  In the midst of the worst economic crisis in modern U.S. history, our political leadership has decided to exempt the very wealthy from sacrifice while tragically weakening the one avenue our society has identified for reducing inequality in the nation—our public schools.

Not only is it profoundly immoral to impose hardship on  the weakest and most vulnerable members of our society, targeting schools for such huge cuts does violence to the very ideal of equality of opportunity which once used to unite liberals and conservatives.

If the only schools that can function well are in communities where parents have the resources to compensate for the budget cuts, then we are basically creating a social order where children will remain in the social position of their parents into the next generation, and where poor and working-class children are doomed by inferior training to be a servant class for the rich, if they are lucky enough to find jobs at all.

I don’t know about you, but this sounds more like the ancien régime in France or pre-revolutionary Russia than the country which Abraham Lincoln once praised “for lifting artificial burdens off the shoulders of men.”

The American Dream is dying before our eyes.

Will we have the courage to rescue it?

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Arnold Shcherban - 3/11/2011

Sorry, instead of "eagerness" it should be "propensity".

Arnold Shcherban - 3/11/2011

Hey, Bill

Have you taken a good care of the Iraqi WMDs piled in your backyard?

"All men created equal."
What a nice sounded, but obsolete myth you're preaching, as usual.
In a good tale they are, in reality are you going to assert that, ON AVERAGE, a baby born in affluent family will have equal opportunities in education, socially, and financially with the baby born in low-income or poor family?
(Not that I will be much surprised
by your "yes" response, knowing you eagerness to pronounce proven ideological, political, and social lies.)
I see at least one good reason for Prof. Naison to teach young people what real, i.e. materialistic (not paper or Biblical) equality means:
the incessant egalitarian and religious propaganda bought by the rich and powerful to smother the young minds with insidious, intellectually long-dead, and socially defeating "All men created equal."

But... blame the teachers!

Andrew D. Todd - 3/10/2011

Well, from what I see, in all the more mechanical forms of teaching (grading papers, tutoring,etc.), Indian competition is beginning to leak in over the internet. I have commented on a couple of instances previously: grading, in undergraduate business school:


and school tutoring:


In terms of what it costs to employ someone in India, a thousand dollars is a lot. Occasionally people have gotten caught trying to bill American school districts at scales reflecting American wage levels, and then lay the work off to India. If you put the American school system under enough fiscal pressure, it is only a matter of time before it follows the automobile industry. Of course, you need some employees in the United States to run a school with the teaching being done from India, but they could be relatively few, relatively unskilled, and relatively low-wage.

Bill Heuisler - 3/10/2011

Professor Naison,
Education in the United States has become federal-controlled over the past thirty years - and suffered a loss of measured quality in direct ratio to its professed "equality".
You being a teacher at Fordham makes me wonder about Fordham. Why do you teach class envy and collective rights? Students in your classes are being taught to worship equality over excellence, to engage in economic class warfare and to ignore the rights of local parents in the name of "equal" money for all.
All men are created equal. They rise on their own efforts, and when you teach class resentment you create subservience, dependence and failure.
Recently, Washington D.C. took away popular parental choice in the name of saving their public schools from competition. Are you paying any attention to the real world, or is Marxiat dogma your only reality?
Bill Heuisler

vaughn davis bornet - 3/8/2011

I'll skip the first comment above, not quite understanding it.

As to the essay: It is the way things look to me, in the far West.

First, yes it is crucial (is there nothing stronger?) that funding for schools be continued with only minor cuts, hopefully temporary in nature.

Second, I cannot get it through my head that the top percent of our people in income are being given a pass at this time. Something has got to give; surely the present tax situation cannot prevail.

That's enough for this blast, I guess.

Vaughn Davis Bornet Ashland, Oregon

james joseph butler - 3/8/2011

President Obama's education policy is like the rest of his presidency, it's predicated on his reelection. There are no decisions made in his White House that do not pivot on politics. Everything from Goldman to gay marriage to Race to the Top is tested and refined to do battle with 2012 in mind. The pity is that this once enlightened man has Frank Luntz in his ear forever.