The Outrage of Public Education Funding

Politicians have probably always made it their business to cripple education. They accomplish this with funding that is half inadequate and half dire emergency. In my experience, you never want to hear a Republican talk about the importance of education, because that means they are going to cut the budget again.

What happens next is that some of the best teachers then reach such a point of disgust that they leave the field, to the great loss of the entire nation. All the so-called “frills” are done away with: art, music, drama, and so on. Athletic teams, of course, are shielded from the necessity of justifying their existence as a major expense that serves only a tiny percentage of the students and has nothing to do with education.

Politicians have always made it
their business to cripple education.

When the budget recovers back up to inadequate, administrators try to Humpty-Dumpty the program back together. But they can’t, because it takes a whole generation of new college graduates to fill the ranks.

That’s not all. The United States is the only advanced country in the world where discrimination against the poor is built in to the funding system. The rich go to schools that have lots of money; the poor go to schools that have little. That’s because we rely on property tax for school funding, and the rich have more property. Is it any wonder that poverty tends to perpetuate itself? Meantime, all the other advanced nations either fund every student equally or provide extra funding for disadvantaged students. And almost all provide more money per student than we do.

The US is the only advanced country
where discrimination against the poor
is built into the funding system.

The advantage of wealth continues on into college. While the prestigious and expensive colleges and universities do attempt to provide advanced education for some of the non-wealthy, even heavy financial assistance is often not enough. In the current financial mess, some families can’t afford even minimal fees, and others need their children to contribute to the family income. So this too becomes a roller coaster.

Public funding for community and state colleges is subject these days to a series of witless rules that make things all but impossible. Much of this derives from education having been invaded by a business mentality. Students are viewed as so many identical widgets to be manufactured at least cost so they can become industrial widgets.

This, in turn, has led to a concept of “productivity” that has no proper place in education. “Productivity” equals the number of students you teach. Nothing more. By this reckoning, the very best education would be one in which the student attends only huge lecture classes and never actually meets a teacher. It means that the large required lecture courses are very productive. Their departments therefore have high average “productivity”, and are thus protected from random budget slashing and faculty loss.

Funding for community and state colleges
is subject to witless rules
derived from business.

Meantime, it is all but impossible to have a class for a string quartet, because a string quartet class is inherently “non-productive”—not to mention that it doesn’t contribute to the production of widgets. The same is true of classes in English as a second language, where small classes and individual attention are of paramount importance. Here’s another cruel joke. You can only take a class twice. After you have taken, say, drawing twice, you are presumed to know all there is about drawing. Same with every other class.

What happens when one of these grossly non-productive departments cannot fill the class with the minimum required twenty students? The class is cancelled. The students must then scramble to enroll in a class they don’t really want. If it is an upper level class, students then have no way to take a class required for graduation. If the class has a continuing record of “poor productivity” it may well be dropped from the curriculum. Education has literally nothing to do with this whole process.

Something even more insidious happens when a teacher retires or leaves. Well, you would think, another teacher would be hired, of course. But you would be wrong. Unless the department is one deemed “highly-productive” because of large lecture classes, the department loses that position. Same if a teacher goes elsewhere. A small department that loses two or three teachers in a year finds its crucial full time staff literally reduced to half. These positions may not be filled again for years, if ever.

Public colleges are forced by circumstances, then, to hire “adjunct” teachers—lots of them. Although guidelines require colleges to hire no more than 25% adjunct teachers to 75% full time, the actual proportions are reversed, to nobody’s benefit. What results from this is a large population of adjunct teachers who have no advantages like health insurance and retirement savings, and at every new term are forced to cobble together an inadequate income from orphaned classes at different colleges. Some of the teachers hired are excellent and some are poor, depending on how desperate the college is. Unfortunately, once a poor teacher has taught a few classes, he or she rises in the priority list and becomes locked in.

What results is is a large population
of poorly paid adjunct teachers
who have no benefits.

A few decades ago, most junior colleges became community colleges, with a new mission statement. Whereas the junior college was seen as the first half of a bachelor’s degree, the community college has additional goals. These involve people of all ages in the local community who may not be interested in or able to pursue a degree. A recent immigrant, for example, probably would benefit from affordable English classes, but can’t pursue a degree (and may already have a few) because she is working full time. Others in the community may want to learn some art history, or a bit of science or math, or learn to swim, or to play classical guitar. And there are technical certificates such as dental hygienist and others. All among the most laudable educational goals. But apparently no longer important, because community colleges now require one to pursue a degree, preferably one that leads directly to a job in “business”.

Education is important, and may or may not be related to one’s occupation. Every aspect of the wellbeing of the country depends on a good educational system.

Education is like a chronically ill patient
who is regularly in and out of hospital.

The semi-system we have devised is entirely inadequate and unsatisfactory, particularly for a great nation that aspires to democracy and equality. Funding must be adequate to offer no real reason for the rich to attend private schools. We need far more consistent and considerably higher funding. All public school students must have the same support.

The entire field today looks like a chronically ill patient who is regularly in and out of hospital. This is no way for a great nation to educate its young.

[An addendum: Funding inequalities are recognized by some states, including Kansas. Republican legislators, however, decided to save money buy cutting the moneys that made student funding the same for all students. The state supreme court had better ideas, and ruled the state must immediately restore the slashed funding. 7 Mar 14]

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I would also add another purpose of U.S. education policy is union-busting. That’s one of the missions of charter schools (besides tightening corporate control of education). The “war on teachers” is no accident — organized people who work to maintain their wages, working conditions and dignity while fighting for the needs of their students is a very bad example for Corporate America.

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  2. I think that people also tend to forget the racial component to the attack on public education. From the late 19th century all the way through the 60’s public education was seen as a priority and we lead the world. But somehow, right about the time that public school integration reached it’s peak, public education became seen as an expense to be cut instead of an investment to be made.

    White flight out of urban school districts and the creation of private Day schools also meant that most people responsible for policy and funding have no skin in the game.

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    • I agree.

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