There are two things going on in the state of Pennsylvania’s education system that go terribly wrong, and both of them are directly related to the socio-economic conditions, which plaque our country. In his speech in front of the California Democratic Convention, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich is making the case that there are five factors that are contributing to the lopsided accumulation of wealth at the top and the misery that working and middle class people have to endure. First, median wages flatlined or declined. Second, the economy grew rapidly, productivity increased, and all that wealth increase went to the top 1%. Third, the increasing share of income and wealth at the top increased the political power of the top 1%, so they could lobby for tax cuts. Fourth, as a result of government revenue drops because the rich are not paying their fair share and because the taxpaying middle class is collapsing, fewer social spending and investment are made, forcing cuts on important government programs like health care, infrastructure and education, accelerating the decline of the American economy and the median standard of living. Fifth, working, middle class and poor people are convinced by billionaires like the Koch brothers and Fox News that the country’s quality is deteriorating, that all have to tighten their belts, that they have to fight for the few remaining scraps, calling for an end to public union collective bargaining after private unions had been obliterated a while ago, calling for going against immigrants, calling for an end in government deficits by implementing shared sacrifice, which means transforming Medicare into a voucher program and abolishing Social Security. This will further weaken the economy. Unless we restore the middle class there will be no economic recovery.i
So while this message seems to be clear, I need to draw some parallels to two happenings in the state policies of Pennsylvania that certainly affect most other states as well. The first is that the state government of Pennsylvania will massively cut public higher education funding by as much as half.ii Public universities like Penn State and Temple will be hardest hit by those savage cuts, which puts more people out of a college education and/or causes student loan debts to increase at a time, when the middle class is already collapsing. (There probably also needs to be some studies on the lower likelihood of getting a good job with a college degree due to the wide-scale availability of degrees, emphasizing the point that individual advancement does not only depend on individual efforts but the economic system’s ability to absorb new jobseekers with decent-paying jobs.) State funding for Penn State University has already gone down over the past decades. In 1970, 62% of Penn State’s operating budget came from state funding, 32% from tuition and fees (part of that was covered through federal Pell grants). In 2010, state funding was reduced to 18% and tuition and fees spiked to 75%. Penn State is currently the most expensive public college in the country. Pell grants may be able to cover some of the expenses, but according to Education Trust, “In 1979, low-income students attending a four-year public college were able, on average, to pay for 77 percent of their tuition, fees, room and board with the maximum Pell award. Today, the grant covers less than half that – just 34 percent of college expenses.”iii The second occurrence is the massive lobbying effort funded by wealthy corporate donors to pass a school voucher expansion, which would give all eligible students a $7,500 voucher to pay for a private school education.iv Backers of this measure cite the increased competition among public and private schools, which could- so the argument goes- make public schools accountable. But this can not hold true as governor Corbett’s budget will slash K-12 state funding to $8.6 billion for FY 2011-2012. v This is an almost a billion dollar reduction as compared to last FY, where state education funding was $9.5 billion.vi So, what the governor is essentially doing is to silently privatize the school system, and undermine the public school system, because it will be completely incapable of delivering a good quality education to struggling students. One wonders how less paid teachers, fewer lab rooms, fewer equipment and larger class room sizes are supposed to improve education.
On a larger scale both of these issue stem from the fact that wealth is accelerating to the top, and the greater political influence of the superrich makes them able to support those education policies that eventually harm lower and middle income people, and prevail. The rich folks will say that they don’t any public funding for colleges, which is why they are glad to see state funding cuts for public colleges, which finances more of their tax breaks. They are all too willing to let poor students graduate with a higher debt load, or not let them consider college in the first place. Both of these outcomes are highly negative for the well-being of the nation’s economy, because they reduce wages, consumption and taxes paid, which depresses the economy. To a larger and larger scale profiteering solely depends not on the dealings of the market, the demand-and-supply relations we learn about in introductory courses in economics, but in simple theft, I.e the redistribution of wealth from the middle class to the top. The same can be said about the initiative to voucherize and privatize the school system. But this example is a lot more pernicious, because it is harder to discern the malicious intent for working and middle class people. If the voucher program gets enacted, more public funds will be funneled into private schools and charter schools for that matter, who not necessarily perform better. It means also that public schools receive huge funding cuts, which will bring desperate parents to accept those school vouchers in ever greater numbers. As more kids will leave the public schools, the remaining kids are left behind, and so they have an incentive to also join a private school, and as long as continuous state funding flows into the voucher program the system could work out over the long term. But I don’t think the voucher program is designed for the long term. I think it is the nature of private schools, as they have private motives (read profit motive) in mind, and not necessarily an ulterior social goal such as providing a good education to children, that the costs for an education per child will escalate. Now, the state will perhaps continue to fund those excessive expenses for a while, just like California funds its outrageous prison system. In 1980, California used to spend 10% of its budget on higher education and 3% on prisons. Today it is 11% for prisons and 7.5% for higher education.vii Over the long term, as the state budgets remain depressed thanks to an anemic economy and more tax breaks for the wealthy, the state will soon begin to phase out the voucher program, which has virtually no impact on upper class Americans, but devastating impacts for lower and middle class Americans. Because once the private school is barred for poor students, where else can they go other than the hollowed out public school system, which has been sorely neglected and defunded? The voucher program is privatization of the school system through the backdoor, using a strategy which could at first sight appeal to middle and working class Americans, but proves disastrous for them.viii
Both of those pernicious political movements in state education policy show that the current state policy is to reduce economic opportunities for lower and middle income people, and establish an ever more oligarchic system. An inclusive education policy is crucial for an economically strong society, and one that questions and points to elite misbehavior and counter-productive flaws in the system. But that would endanger the very position of those in power. We need an invigoration of the public school system, which means a good quality and free public education in K-12 and college. Former British prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, said, “Upon the education of the people of this country the fate of this country depends.”
i Reich, Robert. “Robert Reich Speaks at CA Democratic Convention.” YouTube. 1 May 2011. Web. 10 May 2011. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-KDCt1NMPVI.
ii Gammage, Jeff. “PSU Facing Less than Lion’s Share.” Philadelphia Inquirer 08 May 2011: A1+. Print.
iii”Pell Grants Matter More, Yet Cover Less.” Education Trust. Web. 10 May 2011. http://www.edtrust.org/dc/press-room/news/pell-grants-matter-more-yet-cover-less
iv Martin, John P., and Amy Worden. “Activists Spend Big in Voucher Battle.” Philadelphia Inquirer 8 May 2011: A1. Print.
v “2011-2012 Budget in Brief.” Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Office of the Governor Harrisburg 8 Mar. 2011: 6. Print. http://www.budget.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt/community/current_and_proposed_commonwealth_budgets/4566 2011-12 Budget In Brief
vi “2010-2011 Budget in Brief.” Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Office of the Governor Harrisburg 9 Feb. 2010: 6. Print. http://www.budget.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt/community/past_budgets/4571 2010-11 Budget In Brief Web
vii Wingert, Pat. “Should States Cut College or Prison Spending? – Newsweek.” Newsweek. 28 June 2010. Web. 10 May 2011. http://www.newsweek.com/2010/06/28/classrooms-or-prison-cells.html.
viii For a great analysis of the history of calls for privatizations of the public school system via school vouchers read Noguera, Pedro A. “Confronting the Challenge of Privatization in Public Education.” New York University. Print. http://steinhardt.nyu.edu/metrocenter.olde/resources/PDF/Confronting%20the%20Challenge%20of%20Privatization.pdf