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Public Education’s Fiscal Cliff

Published: Wednesday 21 November 2012
“Put simply, valuing public education is about wanting the best education possible to be accessible to as many people as possible.”


A video depicting a young boy plunging into dark water, his mouth gaping and arms flailing, his body surrounded by bubbles and what sounds like muffled screams, has been released as part of the newly formed “Too Small To Fail” campaign. As the boy struggles, text appears over the image stating “Can't watch one child in danger? You do it every day. Stop watching.”

“Too Small To Fail” is a social media campaign in response to the looming “fiscal cliff.” Sponsored by the Center for the Next Generation, the campaign focuses on raising awareness about the issues most affecting children in the United States--issues such as health care and socio-economic status. The cause’s primary focus is a debate likely to be shunned from budget discourse: the necessity of adequately funded public education.

With the fiscal cliff approaching, debates about revenue are growing even more heated. Obama’s request to raise revenue by letting the Bush tax cuts for the highest tax bracket expire is meeting vehement resistance. Republicans accuse Democrats of stifling competition and engaging in “class warfare.” They assert that the wealthy are already being “taxed to death” and that any tax increase, no matter how small, will have devastating effects on the economy.  

The reality, however, is that, relative to history, the top marginal income tax rate is very low. Indeed, from 1936 to 1981, the income tax rate on the top tax bracket never dropped below 70%. Today, the rate is half that (35%), and, with the exception of the five-year period between 1988 and 1992, is the lowest it’s been since 1931. Thus, the assertion that the wealthy are facing an abnormally high income tax burden is nonsense. The claim that a modest tax increase will hurt the economy defies history as well. In 1990, George H. W. Bush increased the top marginal tax rate by 3%, and GDP growth increased over the next five years. In 1993, President Bill Clinton raised the top marginal tax rate by about 8%, and GDP growth increased over the next five years.

The difficult truth is that when a nation is in recession and has this much debt, at some point, people have to face tax increases, no matter how hard they are working. It starts with people who can afford to pay more. That's not punishing success or hard work; it’s asking those who have been the most fortunate to give back. What Republicans call "class warfare," Democrats call social responsibility.

The question of where to invest this money is always contentious. Public education often seems to receive more than its share of scrutiny and scorn from conservatives. Why are so many people, themselves educated through public schools, so hostile to the notion of a free, high-quality education for the U.S. populace? Conservatives claim to value education, and to want people to support themselves rather than become dependent on so-called “entitlement programs” for their income, yet they continue to advocate policies that make it harder for people to succeed at a level where they will not need such “entitlements.”

Put simply, valuing public education is about wanting the best education possible to be accessible to as many people as possible. This goal remains whether we are discussing K-12 or college education. But there are distinctions between privatizing public universities and underfunding K-12 public schools. In her speech to students and faculty during Berkeley’s 2009 “Save the University” teach-in, Professor Wendy Brown discussed the potentially devastating effects of privatizing public universities, “Privatization of a public university means narrowed access; expanded inequalities; destroyed shared purposes; devalued knowledge and research that is not entrepreneurial or applicable; research that is contoured toward corporate and away from public ends; constricted academic freedom; eroded shared governance and education that is rich, deep, broad and critical, radically eschewed.” But the state of K-12 public education is in some ways more troubling. Schools face continuous cuts to arts programs, and around 40% of high school graduates read at levels far below what most employers seek. Our students recently finished 25th in math and 17th in science in the ranking of 31 countries conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Solutions for how to reverse these dismal numbers may not be clear, but one would be hard-pressed to argue that we could improve such numbers by cutting the education budget.  

The question remains: how much money for the education system is the answer? If there are ways to increase the effectiveness of public education without spending more money, they would be preferable, but we have to be willing to invest money in the short-term to research and compare solutions.There may be alternative teaching methods that can achieve different results with the same amount of money, but, then again, there may not. What is important is that we recognize that we have a problem and explore all possible solutions instead of simply adhering to an ideology that frames spending money for the public good as a practice that is inherently misguided.  

So far, a refusal to spend is all we have been getting from leading conservatives: they simply oppose increases in education spending, and some actually seek to impose savage cuts on our current spending. Often these cuts do not merely affect the quality of education, but also access to education. For example, Paul Ryan’s proposed budget included massive cuts to the Pell Grant program, which is the nation’s premier financial aid program for low-income college students. Of course, during his 2012 campaign, Mitt Romney offered an alternative solution: he told college-aged voters in need to borrow money from their parents. What happens when a family does not have money to lend? Such legacy strategies render ambition obsolete and instead delineate opportunity and prosperity along blood lines. Do we want a society in which everyone who can afford to go to college without government aid has the opportunity to be a doctor, lawyer, or businessperson, while everyone who cannot afford a higher education has the opportunity to perform low-paying, unskilled labor? 

It is not solely a question about whether policies with the effect of narrowing access to higher education are fair (though they are decidedly not fair). It is a question about whether such policies are good for our society as a whole. Children with wealthy parents would have opportunities to climb as high as they choose, but brilliant and productive people born to lower-middle class or poor families would likely have to resign themselves to low-paying, stagnant jobs. Indeed, this structural trap is already the case for so many U.S. families; steep cuts to education would only make things worse. No longer would merit or talent determine access; no longer would righting structural wrongs, such as the legacies of racism, be possible. This sounds not like competition, but an antiquated caste system. 

The Ryan budget policies are an example of conservative strategies that would create dynasties, keeping the money and opportunity in this country in the hands of the privileged few.  Real competition requires a level playing field; immense socio-economic inequality actually hurts such competition. Conservatives often object to the notion of giving people a “free pass,” but giving as many people as possible access to good public schools and a college education is not giving anyone "a free pass." Pell Grant recipients do not simply line up to be handed lucrative jobs at Goldman Sachs. Students with financial aid still have to work hard in college to succeed; the Pell Grant program simply gives them access to the opportunity to work hard at a college education that they could not otherwise afford. The wealth and socio-economic status of a student’s parents are not indicators of that student’s work ethic, and should not be indicators of that student’s opportunities.  

Thankfully, in the wake of the recent presidential election, discourse on public education may be changing. November 6th made clear that voters were not swayed by--indeed, many were concerned about--the Paul Ryan budget and its impact on low-income students facing increasingly expensive public universities. Similarly, if California continues to lead in U.S. social and political trends, then a greater appreciation for what public K-12 and community college systems mean for social and economic safety may lie ahead.  On November 6th, California voters defied their stubborn representatives and called for an increase in sales and income taxes to aid such education.

There are many problems with public education and we need much more than federal funding to fix them.  K-12 students need good, dedicated teachers, while parents and communities must have proactive roles in their children’s studies.  Curriculums must center local knowledge, building from content relevant to students’ everyday experiences. But one thing remains clear: cutting education funding will slow, if not obstruct, such changes. 

The phrase “Too Small To Fail” points to the sharp contrast between Wall Street and students in many public schools who are vulnerable, even invisible to the public eye.  Until budget discourse approaches revenue and its effect on the public good realistically, these students might indeed fail. 

ABOUT Maria Faini and Dave Pogue
Maria Faini is a PhD student and instructor at the University of California, Berkeley. Dave Pogue is an attorney in Charleston, West Virginia.
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