Letter from the United States: Attacks on social wage cripple Oakland schools

July 14, 2012

One aspect of the drive by the super rich to make working people bear the brunt of the new Depression is to attack the social wage.

Part of this attack is the serious erosion of public education. This predates the crisis that began in 2007, but the recession that followed has been met with a sharp increase in such attacks.

The failure of the federal government to adequately fund public education cascades down to the states and cities, who all cry there is not enough money, so cutbacks are necessary.

In Oakland, California, near where I live, Lakeview Elementary (kindergarten through grade six) provides one example of the results.

For almost three weeks, parents, teachers and students in the community occupied Lakeview in protest against the school district shutting the school down.

The teachers continued holding classes in the occupied school until police moved in on July 5 and forcibly dispersed the occupiers. Since then, classes have been held at a nearby site.

The downsizing of Oakland’s schools began with the takeover by the state of California of the school district in 2003, which ended in 2009.

Under the state takeover, many secondary libraries were closed, counselor positions, elective courses and vocational programs were eliminated. Programs for handicapped students were slashed.

Private contractors and private schools were ushered in. By law, 55% of monies for education are supposed to go to classroom instruction. Under the takeover, money was illegally diverted from the classroom to private vendors, consultants and bloated administrative salaries.

In the three years since the state takeover ended, the school district has:

* Dismantled the Adult Education program that used to serve 25,000 students. This was a program that single mothers, high school dropouts and immigrants relied on to try to escape from the clutches of poverty.

* Removed class size limits and increased class size, despite the fact that larger class sizes are linked to lower student achievement levels.

* Made harsh cuts to the preschool program that working families desperately need and is closely linked to children’s future academic success.

Now Lakeview and four other elementary schools have been ordered to close. One reason given by the school board for closing down these schools is their students score low on standardised test scores.

In the past decade, test scores have been used to evaluate schools across the country. In a perversion of logic, schools with lower test scores are punished, including financially. One would think they need more help, not less.

More important, the emphasis on standardised tests forces teachers to teach how to take the tests meaning learning by rote. Rounded education and actual understanding of the subject matter is secondary.

Personal attention to the individual needs of students also suffers. Students do not come from the same backgrounds. Some come from very poor families. The focus on high stakes test scores is used to punish schools in low-income communities.

It is well established that student test scores are primarily a function of parents’ poverty level. Black and brown students are disproportionately from areas of high poverty.

Teachers in low-income areas, such as the district Lakeview served, are also penalised for lower test scores. This is part of a ruling class offensive blaming teachers for the poor quality of much of public education in the US.

The teachers’ unions protecting bad teachers is the problem, right-wing politicians claim.

The Oakland school Superintendent says that closing these five schools will save $2 million a year. But this doesn’t take into account the costs of installing portable classrooms to accommodate the displaced students, which exceeds that amount.

Nor does it take into account the psychological and social costs of crowding students into large classes and overflowing buildings.

And what about the costs of the bloated school administration? If the maximum pay of the administrators was reduced to the maximum pay any teacher gets in Oakland, this would save about US$10 million. That would be enough to reopen all five elementary schools, restore all the cuts to Special Education for handicapped students, pre-school programs and Adult Education.

Those making the decisions to cut public education to the bone are carrying out the plans of the big financial capitalists in every area of life. It's called austerity -- the rich and powerful demanding that we pay for the crisis of their system, here, across Europe and around the globe.

[Barry Sheppard was a long-time leader of the US Socialist Workers Party and the Fourth International. He recounts his experience in the SWP in a two-volume book, The Party — the Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988, available from Resistance Books. Read more of Sheppard's articles.]

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