Thursday, April 18, 2013

Destroying public schools will destroy democracy

Free-market conservatives view government schools (public education) as a socialist experiment. They want public schools privatized in the same way they support privatization of Medicare and Social Security. They believe that the private sector does everything well and governments do everything badly. They also believe that the masses should not be educated. An educated population demands better wages and working conditions, skewing the free market.  They also do not want a true democracy where the people have a say in how the country (company) is run.  They believe the old adage that what is good for General Motors is good for the country – meaning what is good for corporations is good for the country.

There are two groups aligned with the free-market conservatives.  Religious fundamentalists – who resent secular education – want public schools to let religion, including prayers, back into schools. Otherwise, they want to see public schools destroyed.  More disturbing are the legislators who proclaim their support for public schools.  They show up at school events, work their way into photo-ops with students and shower praise on teachers.  And all the while, these two-faced liars sponsor ALEC bills and cast votes that undermine public education. 

Through ALEC, the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council, behind closed doors, these corporations hand state legislators fully written out laws they desire to be passed in each state. These laws directly benefit the corporate bottom line. Both legislatures and corporations have membership in ALEC.  Corporations sit on all nine ALEC task forces and vote with legislators to approve “model” bills. They have their own corporate governing board which meets jointly with the legislative board. Corporations fund almost all of ALEC's operations. Participating legislators, overwhelmingly conservative Republicans, then bring those proposals home and introduce them in statehouses as their own brilliant ideas – without disclosing that corporations crafted the bills.

Let's look at Alabama as an example:

Recently, the Decatur Daily – one of the few independent newspapers left in the state – included two stories that were a reminder of the insidious attack on public education. One story was about local stores that, like others around the state, are losing ground to online retailers. The state sales tax goes to the Educational Trust Fund, which finances K-12 schools as well as colleges and universities. An exception to that rule, passed in the 2012 legislative session, instead directs 75 percent of Internet sales taxes to the General Fund. Not a big deal, it seemed, because not many people pay sales tax on their Internet purchases.

But after the law passed, however, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley supported a bill in Congress that would require the largest Internet retailers to withhold sales taxes and remit them to the state of the purchaser. It was a surprisingly pro-tax position for a governor that consistently opposes tax increases. The Marketplace Fairness Act would send up to $200 million in sales taxes to Alabama, Bentley predicted. This would be huge for the state’s perpetually underfunded school system if it were not for the 2012 law redirecting Internet sales taxes to the General Fund.

The second story in the Decatur Daily was about increasing support among Republican lawmakers, who hold a super-majority in both houses, for an increase in the tobacco tax. Showing unusual 'concern' for the poor, they tied their support to an elimination of sales taxes on groceries. Here’s the problem: They want the tobacco tax to go to the General Fund. Currently, the sales tax on groceries goes to the Education Trust Fund. The revenue-neutral financial impact, therefore, would be to transfer money from the ETF to the General Fund. This is a devious scheme to divide those who believe it is immoral both to tax the poor on food and to deprive children of a solid education. And as if not enough damage has been done, the State budget passed would saddle the ETF with $16 million in mental health spending previously included in the General Fund budget, while cutting $10 million from the nationally respected Alabama Reading Initiative. 

All this comes, of course, after last month’s passage of the Alabama Accountability Act, an act of legislative gamesmanship that duped the superintendent of the state Department of Education. He supported a school 'flexibility' bill. At the last minute, the bill tripled in size and morphed into a scheme to provide tax credits – paid for by the Education Trust Fund – to any citizen to send their children to private schools. Budget estimates make clear that legislators expect the only significant impact of the law will be to provide tax credits to families whose children already are enrolled in private schools. If they are correct, the law will slice about $60 million from public schools. If they are wrong, it will reduce funding by much more - upwards of $300 million.
Both the Accountability Act passed this years and a school 'grading' law passed last year penalize schools whose students perform poorly on standardized tests, an odd policy for a state Legislature that for years has griped about the emphasis on standardized tests imposed by the federal No Child Left Behind law. 

Former President John Adams, in 1785, wrote:
The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.” 

Lawmakers are persistently and aggressively decreasing the resources that public schools have at their disposal. And very little of the public knows about this because the state’s three largest newspapers are run by a right leaning corporation out of New York City.  I often find that many important issues are left out of these three newspapers – and many legislative issues that are written about are whitewashed.  The Alabama public remains ignorant as to what these Republican scoundrels are doing to education in this state.

The public schools in Alabama are much worse off because of this Republican dominated, ALEC-affiliated legislature. If lawmakers continue without public resistance – if voters continue to be ignorant of the consequences due to lack of locally-run newspapers in the major metropolitan areas of the state – then public education will be destroyed.

I may be biased on the value of public schools. I attended public schools, taught in public school for 25 years, and I have family members that work for them or are retired from them. I do not see them as a socialist entitlement but as a cornerstone of opportunity and of effective democracy. 

But, of course, Republicans do not really want an 'effective democracy' where all citizens get to participate, but instead prefer to establish a plutocracy – rule by the wealthy, or power provided by wealth. Destroying public schools ought to do it just fine.