With the political campaign season upon us again, we are hearing many familiar campaign talking points. One that has been echoed by the right for the last 20 years is about how we have to “cut the fat” from public education to “make our schools better.”
After two decades of conservative education policy, it has become apparent that these two talking points can no longer exist together, as government entities have not only cut the fat from most school districts — in many cases they have also taken the meat, and now they’re shaving the bone.
At one point, I think some schools did have some unnecessary expenses, but just because a few districts needed to tighten their belts doesn’t mean every school district in the state could. Opponents of education funding have used this political whitewash to continually call for statewide cuts in what they have labeled out-of-control budgets, and even today they still insist schools have extra administrative costs.
But most school districts don’t have any more administrative costs to cut. They’ve been forced to cut programs for needy kids, close schools, lay off teachers, and drop certain subjects that used to be standard. First it was the arts, music and drama, then it was civics, humanities and social studies, and now we have school districts cutting math, science and English courses. Anyone looking at the studies getting purged would realize this is a major problem, but conservatives have hidden this behind their call for standardized testing. By limiting what a student has to learn, you validate the lack of curriculum and justify schools only “teaching a test.”
A red herring
Many on the right will point to the vague aforementioned concept of “making our schools better” to justify their actions, but that’s a red herring omitting part of the right’s agenda. With our standardized testing, the evaluation process to determine the quality of our teachers is now based on the results of a test students need a large portion of the school year to learn, effectively removing teaching freedom in the classroom and creating a retaliation process against teachers.
The new focus of “teaching a test” removes the barriers that prevented a handful of people the ability to control educational content, as is the case with the Texas School Board’s decision to turn the state’s textbooks into right-wing propaganda. Also, by making public schools worse year after year, you keep the idea of vouchers for students to go to private schools alive, opening up the potential for the wealthiest people in our community getting their child’s private school tuition paid for by the taxpayers.
If you need more evidence, look at the actions of Gov. Tim Pawlenty in the last legislative session. He demanded the Democrats adopt all of his education policies, including weakening the hiring standards we have for our teachers, a clear attack on the state’s teachers union, and if the Democrats didn’t do exactly what they were told, he wouldn’t apply for the federal education aid the state desperately needed. The Democrats passed and so the governor, knowing the state is low on funds, refused to apply for federal assistance, putting personal politics ahead of improving education.
Serious questions for conservatives
It’s time for conservatives to answer some serious questions. How is closing schools and laying off teachers, and in turn forcing class sizes to greatly expand, making our schools better? How is forcing our schools to beg parents to bring in basic supplies, such as paper and pencils, making our schools better? How is removing the teacher’s ability to mold the curriculum to the student and instead forcing a cookie cutter, one-size fits all test on our kids making our schools better? How is weakening the state’s qualifying standards to be a teacher from a degree to a teaching certificate making our schools better? None of this is making our schools better, only worse.
School districts are trying to stem the losses by putting referendums in front of the voters, accompanied by desperate pleas to value education the way our parents and grandparents did, but the lessons learned back then are being drown out by anti-tax screams being encouraged by the same people who cut the budgets in the first place.
If schools would only put this language on every referendum, “If this fails to pass, the school will have no choice but to make cuts in the athletics department first,” I don’t think any future referendums would fail. With our modern warped ideology about what really is important, it might be the only way to save the academic side of our schools.
Matthew McNeil is the 6 p.m. weeknight host on AM 950, KTNF.