Cutbacks threaten public education across U.S.

Even while trillions of dollars were being poured into the Pentagon budget, education in the United States was slipping behind the rest of the world.

According to the National Governors Association Web site, in just 11 years—from 1995 to 2006—the percentage of college-age people who obtained a bachelor’s degree in the U.S. dropped from first place in the world to 14th. By 2006, the U.S. had the highest college dropout rate of 19 industrialized countries. And eighth graders here have been losing ground in mathematics and science.

Students at Portola Middle School join the protest outside Dec. 10 West Contra Costa Unified School District Board meeting in Richmond, Calif., to demand that their school stay open.
Students at Portola Middle School join the protest outside Dec. 10 West Contra Costa Unified School District Board meeting in Richmond, Calif., to demand that their school stay open.
WW photo: Judy Greenspan

Nevertheless, huge cutbacks in school funding are now being announced at every level of public education across the U.S. Schools get most of their funds from state and local governments. About 21 percent of state budgets are spent on K-12 education.

In early November the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported that, because of budget shortfalls due to the declining economy, at least 16 states were proposing to cut funding for kindergarten through 12th grade as well as early education. On the level of higher education, at least 21 states had already implemented cuts to public colleges and universities. The cuts had resulted in layoffs of faculty and staff and, in more than half these states, tuition hikes of 5 to 15 percent.

And the cuts keep growing as more jobs are lost, the economy declines, and the federal government uses public money to bail out the banks.

In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is calling for education cutbacks of $2.5 billion in K-12 schools. The California state universities plan to cut admissions—though figures show applications to the Cal State University system are up 21 percent as fewer people can afford private universities.

CSU tuition has risen in six of the last seven years. California community colleges may lose up to 260,000 students due to forced budget cutbacks.

In Connecticut, Education Commissioner Mark K. McQuillan has warned that budget shortfalls in that state would result in cutting education aid to municipalities by 6 to 12 percent. (Hartford Courant, Dec. 2)

Hard-hit by the crisis in the auto industry, Detroit is contemplating the closure of 63 schools by 2013. At two area high schools there is now a lack of heat and lights in the classrooms and a shortage of teachers. (Michigan Messenger, Dec. 15)

Lights are out in the hallways in the Las Cruces public schools in New Mexico. There is no money for substitute teachers so teachers are advised “not to be absent.” (Las Cruces Sun News, Dec. 14)

WW photo

New York Gov. David Paterson released his 2010 budget on the morning of Dec. 16. That afternoon, 500 City University of New York faculty members, staff, students and their supporters protested outside his New York City office. The vast majority of CUNY students are the sons, daughters or members of New York City’s working class, and raising tuition by hundreds of dollars will make getting an education much harder. Barbara Bowen, president of CUNY’s Professional Staff Congress, which called the protest, pointed out that an alternative to raising tuition would be raising the tax rate the rich currently pay in New York.

The Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care provides money for early education and after-school programs for 31,000 children from low-income families. Another 18,000 children are on a waiting list. But as the number of homeless families skyrockets due to both layoffs and foreclosures, the state on Nov. 3 implemented a “voucher freeze” that would cut off access to child care for homeless families. (Boston Herald, Dec. 14)

In the small Wisconsin city of Rhinelander, 50 percent of students are poor enough to qualify for the school lunch program. But there’s not enough money, so, to make up the shortfall from the state, the school board wants to reduce graduation requirements, thereby reducing the quality of education. (NewsoftheNorth.net)

In South Carolina, at a time when the state’s student population is increasing, a growing number of teachers are retiring and the rate of teacher turnover remains high, the state government has decided to shut down the state’s major teacher training program. (The State, Dec. 15)

In Vermont the legislature is threatening a rise in state college tuition that would come to nearly 20 percent at some institutions. While enrollment has increased 42 percent in the last eight years, full-time faculty has increased just 11 percent. The Green Mountain State expects a 13-percent drop in the state appropriation for education. Families may have to borrow more or not send their children to college at all. (Burlington Free Press, Dec. 12)

In New York, Gov. David Paterson has had to delay proposed cuts to education until next September. However his proposed 2009-2010 spending plan would reduce school budgets by more than $2.5 billion, or more than 12 percent.

The governor’s budget proposal would raise undergraduate tuition at the State University of New York and the City University of New York. The governor would also reduce funding to SUNY training hospitals by $24 million.

The New York State Legislature is contemplating a freeze on universal pre-kindergarten funding through 2011 and a cut in full-day kindergarten and preschool funding. (Internal document from New York State United Teachers, Dec. 17)

Students, parents say:

‘Fight for us!’

While many people are still waking up to the juggernaut of budget cuts coming at them, the fightback has already begun in some areas.

Hundreds of CUNY students and teachers responded to attacks on their city university system with a rally in front of the governor’s New York City office on Dec. 16.

In Richmond, Calif., a largely African-American, Latin@ and immigrant school district, the threatened closing of several elementary schools and two high schools led to a mass turnout of students, parents and teachers of the West Contra Costa Unified School District at a Dec. 10 school board meeting.

Richmond faces declining enrollments because evictions and foreclosures have forced people to leave the district.

When the school board announced cuts to make up for what it called a budget shortfall, state budget cuts and “under-enrollment,” more than 500 parents, teachers, community activists and children tried to get into the meeting room chanting, “Save our schools!” “Save our community!” and “We want justice!” They appealed to the board to “Fight for us!”

Pixie Hayward Schickele, teachers’ union president from United Teachers of Richmond, urged the board to “Stand in solidarity with all of us: teachers, parents, students, all the people who work in our schools and who keep our schools safe. We need to let Sacramento [the state capital] know that we have had enough!”

A youth from Pinole Valley High said: “If you close our school, then we have no future. Keep all our schools open.” She was supported by William Haines, the sophomore class president from Kennedy High School. “The people have spoken. You must find a way to keep the schools open!”

Judy Greenspan, a nontenured teacher, challenged the board: “You can sit by and close the school or you can join the community to fight, go to Sacramento. Because if the bankers got all the money, auto companies got the money, then the people deserve it too.”

Many called on fellow community residents to do what the people did at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago and sit in for their schools, their community and their children.

The struggle for the right to adequate public education is just beginning.

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