Illustration: Luba Lukova
Our government’s perverse definition of “national security” was on display again this summer. By large majorities, the U.S. Congress approved a so-called emergency appropriation of $33.5 billion to escalate the war in Afghanistan—adding to the more than $1 trillion that the United States has already spent waging wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Meanwhile, as schools faced the potential layoff of an estimated 300,000 teachers across the country, Congress dawdled until the second week in August, finally approving $10 billion to save the jobs of about half that number. The catch was that Congress “found” the money by cutting $12 billion in spending on food stamps (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program)—a measure that the Food Research and Action Center says will hurt 40 million people, almost half of them children, when the cuts take effect in 2014. As Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who voted for the bill, said, “I cannot in good conscience condone what we have taken away. . . . The bill shamefully pits these priorities against each other.”
This juxtaposition of robust war spending and inadequate support for education highlights the moral bankruptcy of political and economic leaders who seem to find endless piles of money to kill people abroad but not much to educate them at home. And, of course, the relationship is plain: The more dollars spent on war, the fewer available for human needs—whether alternative energy, food stamps, in-home elder care, public libraries, or keeping teachers in their classrooms.
The fact that our schools being decimated by state and local budget cuts is not considered an emergency ought to spark outrage. Goldman Sachs is evidently “too big to fail,” but not our public schools. Inevitably, even with the belated education aid, teacher layoffs will inflate class sizes throughout the country. To pick one of thousands of examples, Lakesha Carpenter, a kindergarten teacher at Nuffer Elementary School in Norwalk, Calif., was recently laid off when her district cut most teachers with fewer than 11 years experience. Lakesha has taught for “only” 10 years. K-3 class size ratios in her district have expanded from 20-1 to 28/29-1. Any elementary teacher can tell you what another nine students per class will mean for children’s education. This scenario is being repeated with sickening frequency in countless school districts throughout the country.
The Hidden Lesson of Layoffs
And there is a “curriculum” to these layoffs. Children are bewildered and hurt when teachers they’ve built relationships with disappear. They take it personally. The lesson they learn is that society has better things to do with its money than to spend it on their education.
In many districts, diminished revenue is forcing shortened school years and other drastic cuts. Districts are slashing art, music, physical education, after-school sports, libraries, and other programs—with a devastating impact on children. Many districts are bullying teachers to accept wage and benefit reductions. Ultimately, these cuts are an attack on the public sphere itself, as increasing numbers of wealthy and even middle-class families flee diminished and demoralized public school systems.
And thousands of young teachers and prospective teachers are being pushed out—or locked out—of the profession. Individuals attracted to teaching by the opportunity to make a difference in the world, especially in the lives of children, will now need to consider other lines of work. Such heart and talent squandered.
It’s worth pausing to ask: Who stands to gain by the jobs crisis in our country’s schools?
As Naomi Klein argues so powerfully in The Shock Doctrine, the “shock” of a calamity—whether natural or human created—offers opportunities for powerful interests to push their privatization, market-oriented schemes even more forcefully. This neoliberal agenda in education includes weakening teacher unions and dampening worker expectations, expanding charter schools, shifting curricular authority away from teachers and school communities to corporations, and establishing a regime of accountability through standardized tests. Oh yes, and squeezing more work out of school district employees for less money.
It’s not hard to recognize how a layoff crisis furthers this agenda. States starving for education money fall all over themselves in the Race to the Top competition, abolishing caps on the number of charter schools, tying teacher compensation to test scores, adopting national standards, and agreeing to “reconstitute” struggling schools.
Teachers fearful for their jobs are more willing to tolerate conditions that previously may have seemed intolerable—for example, putting up with enormous class sizes or more classes, agreeing to teach awful scripted curricula, or failing to protest when their health and retirement benefits wither. Some teachers, committed to public education but with few job prospects, have felt compelled to accept nonunion jobs in the charter and private sectors.
One Pot of Money
Simultaneously debating war funding and money to stave off teacher layoffs, as Congress did this summer, inadvertently draws attention to the truth that there is one pot of federal revenue, and how it gets allocated is a matter of political choice. Every dollar spent for war is a dollar not spent on children or other human needs.
Of course, K-12 public education is not the only institution damaged by war-first spending. Higher education, public transportation, food assistance, public housing, health care, services to the elderly and people with disabilities, and libraries are all being slashed. The breadth of this attack on the public well-being underscores that this is a battle we need to wage in alliance with all those who suffer from the upside-down priorities that deem bombs a necessity and books a luxury.
If there is a silver lining to this crisis, it’s the increased activism along these lines that we see throughout the country—and the willingness to connect grievances. For example, this summer the United Auto Workers and Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition launched a campaign to “rebuild America with jobs, and justice, and peace.” This UAW/Rainbow PUSH initiative links demands “to rebuild the nation’s cities, provide jobs and education, enact a moratorium on foreclosures, and end the wars in the Middle East.”
The recent U.S. Social Forum in Detroit that brought together more than 15,000 social justice activists and hundreds of organizations (including Rethinking Schools), is another ray of hope—an initiative that recognizes the importance of uniting those who have a stake in a more equal, peaceful, and just society. The “One Nation March,” planned for October 2 in Washington, D.C., by the NAACP and more than 170 civil rights, education, environmental, and labor groups is another such example. This mobilization’s slogan is “Demand the change we voted for”—jobs, safe homes, quality education, immigration rights, and cutting the military budget. A few days later, on October 7, the National Day of Action to Defend Education will build on last March’s powerful student-led grassroots protests against cutbacks, and attacks on immigrant rights and ethnic studies.
These initiatives have the potential to bring millions of people together in a movement that reveals the interconnections of our grievances and demands that government serve the interests of the people, not huge banks and corporations.
The link between teacher layoffs and a permanent war economy has become so glaring that we ought to bring it up in every possible forum:More than a trillion dollars spent on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. For those of us concerned with the hemorrhaging of teacher jobs in this country, one call is obvious: Stop the wars.