Recession Goes to the Head of the Class

Budget Cuts at Odds with Rhetoric of Reform

By Stan Karp

Recession is replacing reform as the “4th R in the nation’s classrooms this year. Cutbacks and budget crises brought on by the economic slump are wreaking havoc, and reform promises are beginning to bounce like rubber checks.

At the same time, there may be a ray of hope in the resistance greeting some cutbacks and in the growing realization that this all-too-familiar cycle of cutback and crisis is part of a broken fiscal system that needs to be replaced.

Massachusetts, where American public education was born, has been especially hard hit. The small community of Wales recently earned the distinction of having the largest elementary-school class in the state after cutbacks forced the layoff of five of the district’s seven teachers. Wales elementary school was functioning this January with a combined K-2 class of 76 students, a 3rd-4th grade of 52, and a 5th-6th grade of 58, according to Education Week.

Larger districts have been similarly devastated by four years of reductions in state aid. In Holyoke, a mid-sized city, a third of the city’s teachers and half of all administrators lost their jobs. Class sizes surged past 40 and students had to pay a $100 fee to play team sports at the high school.

At Lynch Middle School, 26 of the 54 teachers were laid off. As a result, there is no longer any physical education, computer science, music, print shop, or industrial arts. “The Holyoke public schools were hit by a nuclear blast, and the middle schools were ground zero,” David DuPont, principal of Lynch, told a reporter from the MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour.

The Holyoke schools have been functioning more like warehouses than educational institutions. According to school Superintendent George Counter, “We stacked them and we packed them in. We controlled them. We managed them. We kept them quiet for 180 days.”

As fiscal pressures reproduce the same tensions and inequalities inside the schools that are buffeting the rest of society, local budget battles increasingly reflect the sharp stratification and polarization of the population by race and class. Groups locked into hostile postures are fighting over inadequate resources, and communities are splintering.

In a now-familiar pattern, Holyoke authorities sought “cap waivers” which would allow local taxes to rise enough to maintain services. The local voters, who are mostly white, increasingly older, and feeling financially strapped, approved waivers for senior citizens, police, fire, and sanitation services. But they voted “no” on the schools, where 70% of the students come from a Latino community that is severely underrepresented in city government and local elections.

The end result is an increase in racial tension. Lillian Santiago, a Puerto Rican parent, said the vote would “definitely” have gone differently if the majority of students were white. “I felt not wanted,” she added. “I really had a hard time understanding the white community and trying not to build up hate.”

AnIrrational Process

Superintendent Counter concluded the whole process was irrational: “Why are we deciding by referendum at the local level whether kids should have reading teachers, whether they should have athletic programs, reasonable class sizes? That’s cuckoo. It’s nuts. It doesn’t work. It needs to be fixed.

We need to make a basic commitment to kids in this country.”

Across the nation, however, the exact opposite seems to be taking place. In December, a joint report of the Center of Budget and Policy Priorities and the Center for Study of the States described how states were making the worst set of cuts affecting low-income people “since at least the early 80s.” Forty states have frozen or cut Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Twenty have cut programs for the homeless. Record numbers of Americans are relying on food stamps, and more than half of all school lunches are going to kids poor enough to qualify for free or subsidized meals.

The impact of the cuts on schools and kids contrasts sharply with the lofty education goals embraced rhetorically by the president and the nation’s governors. One of the six national goals adopted by the 1989 “Education Summit” was assuring that “all children start school ready to learn.” But as Education Week recently noted, community-based support services for children are being chipped away, whether it’s psychiatric aid or programs that help poor families buy clothes for school.

Two examples of social service cuts that relate directly to schooling involve libraries and health programs. The American Library Association has called the current plight of public libraries worse than it was during the Great Depression. Students heading for the local branch library to do their homework or to find a warm, safe place to stay in the absence of affordable after-school care are increasingly finding reduced hours, fewer books, or closed doors.

As for health care, there are about 12 million kids with no health coverage in the U.S., but cutbacks in school nursing and health programs are rising. New York City used to have 200 nurses and 23 teams employed by the Health Department to provide basic medical services in the schools. But the budget was cut in half, leaving 88 nurses to serve 1,000 schools.

With tax revenues lagging behind expectations in 30 states, further cuts appear likely. A representative for the National School Boards Association recently noted that there is generally a two-year lag between a recession and its impact on schools. He expects the effects to grow and continue into 1993 and 1994.

Fiscal Patchwork

Yet the patchwork of fiscal and legislative arrangements that supports public education already seems to be unraveling. At least half the states are currently facing court challenges to the legality of their funding arrangements. School districts in California, Washington, and Virginia have tried to re-open contracts and roll back negotiated wage hikes for teachers. Baltimore schools and other systems are considering unplanned “furloughs” to make up for insufficient funds. In Missouri, 10% of the state’s districts may face bankruptcy before June.

The United Federation of Teachers (UFT) in New York City is suing the municipal government for violating a law that’s supposed to prevent school aid from falling below the average level of the previous three years. Last year an impressive grassroots mobilization organized to block mid-year cutbacks, bringing parent, union, and advocacy groups together as part of a successful fightback effort. But $44 million in mid-year cuts—the most disruptive and chaotic kind—are being proposed again this year.

A UFT survey of 6000 teachers documented the impact of budget reductions that have already been imposed:

“The blackboard broke last year,” reported one junior high science teacher. “There is no money to replace it, so I have a gaping four-foot space in front of my room.”

“Our school doesn’t have enough textbooks for students to take home,” a special ed teacher from Brooklyn said. “I can’t even give them handouts because we’re out of paper for the copy machine. What do I tell a parent who complains her child isn’t getting any homework?”

“No gym, no music, no nurse, no guidance counselor. No trips, no art supplies. What’s left?” said a Bronx elementary teacher.

“In 23 years of teaching I have never seen such chaos,” wrote another.

The process of implementing cuts often reinforces the system’s worst bureaucratic features. Reductions are usually imposed top-down, reflecting the priorities of politicians and administrators rather than those of parents, teachers, or students.

Tense budget sessions create anger, frustration, and despair, draining energy from more constructive efforts. During one protest in the Bronx, N.Y., 30 schools rang their fire alarms as students, parents, and teachers streamed out of school buildings with placards alerting the community to proposed cuts. “They can find money for Chancellor Fernandez’s alarm system and shrubbery for his backyard, but not textbooks,” one angry parent told a Newsday reporter.

Reform programs are a major casualty of recession cutbacks. Innovations are being eliminated or completely marginalized. In Maine, the governor imposed $35 million in education cuts and sought to suspend reforms that put a limit of 25 on class size through the 8th grade and 30 in high schools. An official of the Maine Teachers Association responded saying, “Education reform as we know it will be dead.” The chair of the state’s joint education committee agreed: “Once they dismantle all of these reform acts, it will be impossible to put them back in. Schools will lose ground.”

This budgetary chaos is the opposite of the stability needed to promote effective schooling, let alone to support changes promised by reform goals.

The damage goes deeper than the lack of resources. Each round of personnel cuts typically sets off a disruptive ripple of “bumping” as senior staff claim previous positions, newer staff feel threatened, and everyone gets demoralized. Students suffer similar blows to morale. “I think we’re cheated out of a lot of things,” a 4th grader in one school said to a New York Times reporter investigating the cutbacks.

A 1990 study in the journal New Directions for Child Development concluded that economic recessions not only condition children’s aspirations, but strain relations with parents and limit the quality of education the children get.

Oftentimes, recessionary budget cuts come wrapped in a misleading aura of inevitability. “These are the numbers,” the budget planners say, implying there’s nothing to do but cut the coat to fit the available cloth. A prerequisite for effectively opposing such cuts is forcing a change in the terms of the debate. Teachers and their supporters had some recent success on this score in Montgomery County, Maryland.

Teachers Oppose Cuts

State cuts led county officials to propose unscheduled school “furloughs” to make up $28 million in lost aid. But the teachers and the community insisted that county authorities raise the necessary revenues instead of reduce services.

As Mark Simon, recent past president of the Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) explained, “It’s very easy to just accept the numbers and say the revenue just isn’t there. But we decided on principle not to do that. We went to parents and argued against closing the schools to make up the funds. For one, it’s basically just a pay cut for teachers. It comes out of teachers’ pockets. Number two, once you do that it becomes easy for politicians to do again.”

As an alternative, the teachers proposed increases in the few taxes left to county discretion. They also forced the council to hold hearings, packed the sessions with angry, vocal teachers and supporters, and staged high-profile demonstrations against the cuts, including a rally of over 20,000 at the state Capitol. Capitalizing on several years of bridge-building and grassroots political education which had strengthened the credibility of the progressive leadership in the MCEA, the teachers built a coalition with other county unions. They also staged an effective work-to-rule action in the schools, refusing to supervise after-school activities, hold after-school parent conferences, or continue the many other duties

teachers usually perform on their own time. Students supported the effort on their own initiative, organizing student government groups in the high schools to circulate petitions and gather thousands of signatures protesting the cuts.

In the end, proposals to close the budget gap with layoffs or school closings were defeated. Some county fees and taxes were increased, and the coalition was strengthened for the next budget fight, which is already under way in the state legislature. By contrast, in nearby counties that had less militant opposition, furloughs and teacher pay cuts have already been imposed.

“The problem isn’t just a fiscal problem,” Simon noted. “It’s political. The revenue-generating structure is faulty. Our demand has to be that the tax structure needs to be reformed. Too many people who should be paying more are not. The legacy of the Reagan/Bush years is that the top 5% of the population is getting away with murder and the schools are suffering as a result.”

Right-wing populists and conservative defenders of corporate interests have long held the initiative in the debate on tax issues. But school advocates and other progressive forces have more than ample ammunition to go on the offensive. Over a decade of Reagan-Bush “supply-side” tax changes, aided and abetted by most Democrats, has left the system more unfair than ever.

The Washington, D.C.-based Citizens for Tax Justice (CTJ) reports that while after-tax income for middle and lower income families has dropped slightly since 1977, it’s jumped “by a staggering 136%” for the richest 1% of the population. CTJ puts the current cost of tax cuts for the wealthy at $160 billion a year.

Tax Realities

Ironically, despite all the tax bashing by politicians, “taxes have not been reduced for most Americans over the past decade and a half,” the CTJ noted. The very poorest families did get some overdue relief from tax burdens, though the amounts involved were so small as to have little impact on overall government revenue. But most working and middle class families are paying more in taxes than they did before the “supply-side” tax cutters of the 1980s went to work. And they’re paying more of the sort of regressive property and sales taxes that increase inequality in the tax structure while feeding anti-tax frenzy. In large part, this is because federal tax policy first swelled the deficit to pay for higher military spending and tax cuts for the wealthy, and then “exported” the deficit to the states by disinvesting in education, aid to cities, and other social programs.

It’s the rich and the corporations who have thrived. The average income of the top 1% more than doubled from 1977 to 1992. This wealthy elite, about 2.5 million people, now takes in more of the nation’s total income than the bottom 40%, about 100 million people. “This growth in inequality — and the strident, often self-righteous unwillingness of those who enjoy new-found riches to pay taxes on their enormous gains — underlies most of the government’s deficit problem,” according to the CTJ.

It will take more than money to create a just, fair, and democratic school system. But a clear focus on the fundamental inequities of the tax structure used to pay for education, combined with grassroots pressure from below, are key ingredients for any progressive solution to the crisis in school financing. Efforts to use the current recession as an excuse for disinvesting in schools should be exposed for what they are: a cynical abandonment of reform promises, a willing surrender to growing inequality, and a continuation of government business asusual in the service of the wealthy few.

Stan Karp teaches English and Journalism at J.F.K. High School in Paterson, NJ.