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What Progressives Can Learn From Public Education’s ‘Fiscal Cliff’

The ideological hard-heartedness permeating our country’s political leadership hit public ed two years ago. There's much to learn from how it played out there.

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Public education’s fiscal cliff already happened.

The “austerity bomb” Paul Krugman warns us of in the New York Times was already dropped on public schools at least two years ago. And what impact the sequestration has on education is, in comparison, a ground assault.

This is not to make light of the 8 percent cut to education the sequester demands.

These cuts would likely have immediate negative effects on specialized programs such as career and technical education, Native American students, and students whose parents work on military bases or federal land. They could adversely affect funding of early childhood education (Head Start). They would eventually take a chunk out of the federal government’s Title I funding of school districts that serve the nation’s poorest children. And they would eventually significantly reduce funding for special education, a chronic need the federal government has never funded to the levels it promised.

What the austerity measures represent, however, is a much bigger and more urgent issue than the direct effects of the actual cuts. After all, the feds pick up less than 10 percent of the tab for the country’s education, and education amounts to less than one percent of the total federal budget.

What the cuts represent is the continuation of something bigger and more intentional — not a “shared sacrifice” or “necessary budget balancing” — but an ideological hard-heartedness that permeates our country’s current political leadership.

In other words, don’t believe the handwringing expressed by Republicans, and many Democrats, about the effects of the nation’s budget deficit on “future generations.”

These are not people who care about the future generation, at least judging by what they’ve been doing to schoolchildren who are, well, the future generation.

Let’s review . . .

Austerity Is Nothing New For Public Schools

A little over a year ago, a report published on this website, “Starving America’s Public Schools: How Budget Cuts and Policy Mandates Are Hurting Our Nation’s Students,” revealed that new austerity budgets passed by state legislatures were resulting in drastic cuts in direct education services to school children nationwide.

The effects of the cuts were immediately devastating to schools, especially in critical needs areas such as early childhood education, class size, arts, vocational, and physical education, and special services to children who have learning disabilities and whose first language isn’t English.

Robert Borosage wrote at the time of the report’s release, “The bankers who caused the mess got bailed out. The military budget exceeds Cold War levels. The richest 1 percent of Americans, who make as much as the bottom 60 percent of Americans, pay the lowest tax rates since the Great Depression. But our kids and their schools are paying the price for an economic mess they didn’t create.”

What’s Happened Since

Despite the severity of the cuts, the carnage didn’t stop.

The good folks at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities have kept on top of the funding trends and have observed that, for the 2012-13 school year, elementary and high schools were receiving less state funding than in the previous school year in 26 states, and “in 35 states school funding now stands below 2008 levels — often far below.”

CBPP analysts found that the cuts were by and large ideologically driven. Because states relied heavily on spending reductions in response to the recession, rather than on a more balanced mix of spending cuts and revenue increases, funding for schools and other public services fell sharply. Their conclusion was that “this level of budget-cutting is unnecessary and results, in part, from state and federal actions and failures to act.”

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