Republican Approaches To Public Education Are A Threat To America’s Future

by Dr Carolyn M. Elam on January 26, 2012

 Republican Approaches To Public Education Are A Threat To America’s Future

The evolution of public education is destined to show signs of regression if the Republican Party prevails in their assault on education. Republican elected officials and candidates for their Party’s presidential nomination assert frequently and vigorously that slashing funds to education will decrease government spending and help to decrease the nation’s budget deficit. Worse yet is the stated goal of Republican presidential candidates to eliminate the federal Department of Education. These beliefs are also conveyed at the local level in other parts of the country. Several recent policies enacted at both federal and state levels will affect who will be educated and how well. I question the merits of any policies that do not provide an opportunity for every child to obtain a high quality public education.

In my home state of Alabama, funding for public schools will be cut and more highly qualified teachers will leave their jobs, or lose their desire to teach, because of the lack of confidence in their elected state officials. Just recently here in Alabama, veteran teachers made the decision to retire or accept the legislative changes to their medical coverage plans. Healthcare costs almost doubled for those teaching professionals with families. For years, educators knew that their annual incomes were not comparable to other private jobs, but that the cost of healthcare was a benefit worth preserving. Attacking educators’ health benefits was a low blow. A 2011 report shows that approximately 1,200 teachers have submitted requests to retire. The victims of this exodus will be our children and the quality of K-12 education.

An increase in teacher retirement deductions is another gut wrenching policy that will affect the lives of Alabama’s educators. Instead of a 5 percent deduction, teachers will now experience a 7.5 percent deduction. As the cost of healthcare increases and pay raises become nonexistent, teachers have to adjust personal budgets to meet the offset of increased retirement deductions. Suffice it to say these developments will have a negative impact on the corps of experienced teachers in the state of Alabama. Pitting inexperienced teachers against their more experienced colleagues is insanity. The cost of training novice teachers to implement state standards while improving students’ academic achievement will be costly. The state’s budget will still be in the red.

The Republicans’ decision to restructure public schools may include the introduction of charter schools. Studies have shown that charter schools may not make a difference in how well students are educated. There are important questions to be addressed: Who will administer these charter schools? Will administrators with public school experience be considered? If so, what will they do differently to make charter schools more effective than public schools? Also, will charter schools be designed to teach specific students or all students? So who will be affected by these proposals? There are short term and long-term consequences for making the wrong decisions in education: the students of Alabama will suffer if the right choices are not made on behalf of all affected families.

As an educator, I always believed that educating the whole child would be enough to prepare children to become productive citizens. Most of the children I, and many of my colleagues, taught attended inner city schools and many did not have the social/economic support systems generally available to middle and upper class students. Nonetheless, they were smart and did learn. However, through research, I found that the cards are stacked against these students. Any financial cuts to educational programs for inner city students will widen the achievement gap between low and high achievers in public schools.

It is common knowledge that children from low-income families primarily populate inner city schools. These schools depend upon federal and state funds to pay employees and purchase other necessary resources. Parents of students attending schools in the inner city elect legislators they feel are willing to make crucial decisions about the educational needs of their children. These parents cannot afford to send their children to private schools; therefore, cuts in funding for public education will affect how well their children are educated.

Conservatives reject tax increases to fund public education citing the country’s debt crisis as the politically convenient rationale. These same conservatives are less interested in the long term effects underfunded schools present as future costs to society. “Increased education does, indeed, improve skill levels and help individuals to lead healthier and more productive lives.” I am a living example of the commonly held view that a well-educated citizenry is vital to a prosperous economy. It is really simple: An educated citizenry, especially today, hastens the onset of a new economic narrative in this country. Could that be the basis for their opposition to increased funding?

I am a parent as well as an educator and I know that educating a child well is far cheaper than paying for that child to grow up and perhaps populate our growing and costly prison system. Too much money is paid to house young people (often, first time offenders) who were not educated well as products of public schools. Programs to offset negative influences in low-income neighborhoods provide outlets for children with the desire to improve their economic status as adults. This is, or should be, sufficient justification to make funding for public education not just essential, but a national priority.

Funds are also needed to assist those who leave school prematurely and attend alternative education programs. Moreover, funding adult education programs provides education for students or adults who dropped out of school and wish to complete their education. Thus, the need for education funding continues as the population of the country becomes more diverse.

Politically, this country is polarized, and dangerously so with serious consequences for the rest of us. The rift between Democrats and Republicans appears to deepen as the 2012 presidential election approaches. The distrust of conservative voters toward Democrats has created confusion and an imbalance of fair decisions in Congress. We feel the ripple effects well beyond Washington’s famed Beltway. As an educator, making the right decision about candidates is a critical part of the process. All voters should choose candidates who will do what is right for their community and their country.

Lately, I have seen outstanding local Democratic candidates in Alabama rejected solely because of their party affiliation. I would hope voters’ decisions are not made because of race or ethnicity but rather on the basis of merit. A phenomenon common to my state is most Black politicians are Democrats and, as a rule, white voters do not support Black candidates for public office. Voting for politicians on the basis of their race or ethnicity will have devastating effects on the educational system here and wherever this pernicious behavior is practiced.

Can a society that ignores equality in education be successful economically? I think not. “In 1970, the United States had the world’s highest rate of high school and college graduation. Today, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, we’ve slipped to No. 21 in high school completion and No. 15 in college completion, as other countries surpassed us in the quality of their primary and secondary education. As the business world becomes more global, citizens of the United States have to be prepared to compete for jobs nationally and internationally. This should be a matter of concern for all Americans, especially those with school age children.

As noted previously, a well-educated citizenry will create a more prosperous society. Data is available showing that the typical high school graduate will obtain higher employment and earnings – an astonishing 50 percent to 100 percent increase in lifetime income – and will be less likely to draw on public money for health care and welfare and less likely to be involved in the criminal justice system.” Shortsighted policies only increase the likelihood we will reap a whirlwind of our own creation.

With regard to K-12 education, I am a firm advocate for: quality education and high performing schools here in Alabama and nationwide; sufficient federal, state and local funding for education and schools; hiring supporting, and retaining high quality teachers; school curricula that foster and develop skilled and well-rounded citizens and future members of the workforce; family, community, and governmental support for schools and education; and administrative effectiveness in local public education. High quality education has to rank as a priority of national security consequence. Let’s look at the future.

The national census indicates that this country’s traditional white majority population will become a minority before 2050. Creating a political environment that does not address the requirements of the majority population will have consequences for everyone. These consequences may not be apparent now but may appear more permanently in the near future.

What we require are elected officials with a vision for the future needs of our society. For example, a future that consists of low and high achievers may present a problem in the work force. High paying jobs will be available, but many lacking a firm intellectual foundation and proper skills will not be qualified to apply for these positions. Jobs will continue to be outsourced and the prosperity of the country will be more limited as resources are shifted to work forces in other countries. Funding education is an investment in the country’s future and should not be viewed primarily as a means to balance the federal budget and reduce our national debt.

Our children are our greatest national treasure and politicians whose larger fealty is to those who fund their political careers are shortchanging them.

Dr Carolyn M. Elam

Dr. Carolyn M. Elam has been a college adjunct professor for seven years and a public school teacher for 33 years, teaching grades 7 through 12, in Montgomery, Alabama. In 2011 she obtained her Doctoral Degree in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Phoenix.

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  • Dr. Elam has expressed a fear shared by many American families today.  The Republican assault on public education is one of the most insidious and cynical political acts of the 21st century thus far.  The damage will be structural and just may severely weaken one of the cornerstones of American democracy.  An outcome we must guard against is the creation of a poorly educated, permanent working underclass more suited to the low-paying jobs they plan to create for the society of the future.  This is shameful.

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