Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Education under fire

On Friday morning, the University of California at Berkeley’s point-person for the Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad Program sent out a message to inform applicants that the grants which have provided research funding for generations of language and area specialists, academics and teachers, have become the latest casualty in an on-going assault on education.  This is an assault mounted by a political party which looks upon knowledge as a threat and by an un-civil ethos which looks upon education as eminently expendable.

This came one day after Mark Yudof, the President of the University of California, threatened students with a mid-year 32% tuition increase, because the 8% that undergraduates are facing, on top of student fees and costs of living are not enough.  Yudof, always several steps behind in the debate on public education in California, appears to hope that this threat will goad California’s legislators into action over the state’s budget, the latest version of which, while offering some cold comfort to K-12 students, marks yet another step toward the state’s outright abandonment of its prized university system. 

It was further suggested that the 32% increase (the second such massive leap in two years) might need to be followed by four more years of 8-20% tuition increases.  These increases, of course, would spell the end of the University of California’s venerable existence as a public institution.  The state would be a non-contributor, campuses would charge differential tuition, and education would cease to be a public good and come to be a product to be purchased only by those who can afford it.

But Yudof isn’t scaring the people who control Sacramento.  Because despite their overwhelming majorities in the state legislature, California Democrats do not control the state’s purse strings.  They are hemmed in by a deranged state Republican Party and a weak Governor who turned his back on any moral argument for education (or anything else) when he abdicated responsibility for California’s budget mess by putting it in the hands of the state Republican Party.

The California Republican Party, which in many respects governs by default because of the state’s embrace of minority rule (any tax levies need a two-thirds vote in the Senate and Assembly), is not going to be impressed by Yudof’s threat.  He is, in fact, playing into their hands.  For they are increasingly a party of heartless ideologues who rail against collective responsibility, the idea of a public good, and the notion that we should look after each other.

California Republicans have discovered the perfect way to dismantle California’s social system and public institutions—whether schools, colleges and universities, wilderness regions or recreation areas.  Their mode of governing is to eschew problem-solving and rely on abject inaction as a way to strip away funding provisions for healthcare, education and social services, to say nothing of the regulations that keep our water clean, or food comparatively safe, and which work to clean our air and foster social and economic justice.

But Republicans spurn the moral trappings of social democracy and instead fantasise about what they call the Free Market.  You could hardly find a more incredible misnomer, because the way, so they tell us, to enable the Free Market, is to ruthlessly break down every last moral, social and political barrier to greed, corruption, cronyism and ruthless disregard for our neighbours and fellow citizens.  It does not involve, as Republicans try to pretend, taking government out of people’s lives.

What it does involve, however, is stopping the institutions of government from doing all of those worthy things that they do on behalf of all citizens, and to focus their efforts with laser-like intensity on promoting the welfare of the biggest and the baddest, the least responsible and the most greedy in our society.  It harnesses civic power by wrenching it away from the many, ignoring the questions and problems that pertain to the broader public, and hacking away with gleeful abandon at any institution that threatens to promote critical thinking or check the excess of monied interest.

It is not just our public universities that are being taken to pieces by California’s Republican Party and an acquiescent Governor.  Mac Taylor, the state’s legislative analyst, has indicated that Brown’s ineptitude in negotiating a special election to raise the funds necessary for keeping our schools afloat (during which he’s been out-manoeuvred by Republican legislators who have nothing to lose by plunging our state into chaos) is imperilling the ability of school districts to plan for the coming year. 

Pink slips are given to teachers in mid-March, warning them that they might be laid off, and their employment statuses are updated over the next couple of months, and even into the summer, as budget predictions crystallise.  California’s budget is not only making the situation worse by threatening to cut into the education budget; it is also creating a dangerous level of uncertainty at schools. 

Laying off teachers means consolidating classrooms and subjects, asking remaining teachers to pick up courses and subjects they might not have taught in some time (or ever), changing scheduling, playing havoc with room assignments, upping class sizes, wasting lesson planning, and lowering the quality of education.  Literally tens of thousands of teachers in California have been laid off.  Some—possibly even many—will manage to return in the fall, based on re-formulated budgets.  Others, however, will not.  But in the meantime, they and their students all face uncertainty about their futures.

Republicans spearhead their assault on schools by arguing that they are targeting waste.  But California lags drastically behind nearly every other state in terms of school personnel.  In terms of staff:student ratios for total staff, teachers, officials and administrators, principals and assistant principals, guidance counsellors, and librarians, California ranks between 47th and dead last when compared with other states (A Portrait of California 95).  In terms of per-pupil spending, California is surpassed by 30% when it comes to the national average, and by as much as 75% when compared to states like New York (A Portrait of California 96).  Waste is a red-herring invented by the state Republican Party.

If the ability of universities and schools to provide a solid education to a wide range of students is being impaired by our representatives’ actions, their disregard for learning also reflects a state of mind about our position in the world.

The Fulbright program was created, in the words of its founder, “to bring a little more knowledge, a little more reason, and a little more compassion into world affairs, and thereby to increase the chance that nations will learn at last to live in peace and friendship”.  J William Fulbright was anything but perfect, and he might have added ‘people’ to ‘nations’, but his sentiments were nonetheless commendable, and give us a very clear idea what our Republican Congressional delegations have in their sights. 

Any institution and every thought that promotes critical thinking (needless waffling and deliberation to many Congressional Republicans), analysis of our place in an international and global set of frameworks (anti-American second-guessing to the crusading right), or seeks to question the political and economic status quo to which we have accustomed ourselves even as we find ourselves mired in wars, economic crises and a loss of faith in our capacity to right our ship of state, is being targeted with a vengeance.

The Fulbright-Hays is a small thing.  But not only is it a small thing that stands in for a larger worldview; that something of its size has been targeted as a budget deficit fix, when there are much more obvious fish to fry, says something about the moral framework of those doing the chopping.

California’s $25 billion deficit is roughly equal to the combined wealth of the state’s two most affluent residents.  And yet in our quest to bridge that deficit, as at the national level, we are sordidly rooting out the programs that succour the poorest of our neighbours, and which do the most universal good.  That education is amongst these is tragic.

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