I don’t think the average American begrudges wealth, not even great wealth. What we don’t like is when the wealthy get that way by ignoring the rules and playing unfairly. After all, the American Dream said that if you worked hard and played by the rules, you could end up better than where you started. With the deck increasingly stacked against the average Joe though, that dream is no longer a reality for most.
One example of the deck being stacked is the full-steam-ahead drive to privatize public education in Arizona. Oh sure. The “reformers” try to claim this is about giving parents choice and helping the most disadvantaged children. Just a little digging though uncovers it is really about helping the rich get richer.
Arizona has been a leader in school privatization since 1997 when the legislature first began pushing personal tax credits and “voucher” workarounds. Now, there are Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs), Student Tuition Organizations (STOs), and individual tax credits. An attempt to expand ESA eligibility from approximately 20 percent to over 70 percent last year was thwarted at the last minute, but you can bet the proponents will be pushing it again this year.
Why the big push for privatization in Arizona? Mostly, because Arizona is one of the leading water carriers for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC.) ALEC is comprised of both corporate and legislative members who work in tandem to create and then legislate laws favorable to business. ESAs are an ALEC sponsored initiative, as are STOs. “ALEC-member legislators are unabashedly continuing to push legislation straight from corporate headquarters to Arizona’s law books,” said Marge Baker, Executive Vice President at People For the American Way Foundation. “Well-heeled special interests are circumventing the democratic system and bypassing Arizona’s citizens, who can’t match the level of access that ALEC provides. As a result, Arizonans are facing an endless assault from laws that serve the interests of the rich and powerful instead of everyday people.”
As Paul Horton writes in Blogs.EdWeek.org, “toward this end, public schools and public teachers have been subjected to a relentless barrage of negative propaganda for almost thirty years. Many corporations want to force open education markets, Microsoft and Pearson Education to name two of the largest, demand “free markets,” “choice,” and “free enterprise.” Public schools are defunded and closed, so that parents can choose among competing charter schools supported by city, state, and Federal policies. Politicians of both parties at every level are funneled campaign contributions from charter school investors for their support of “school choice.””
Of course, it all comes down to money. Money to be saved by the state, and money to be made by profiteers. Unfortunately, when profit becomes the driving factor, children become collateral damage. Already in the United States, students in the top quartile of family income have an 85% chance of going to college, compared to 8% of those in the bottom quartile. Although it used to be true in America that your children would likely end up better off than you had been, that is no longer the case. In Arizona, children have an uphill battle as evidenced by the state’s ranking of 46th in child well-being by the Annie E. Casey Foundation in its 2014 Kids Count Data Book. On top of that, Arizona has seen the nation’s highest percentage increase (77 percent) in college costs in the past five years, brought about by the most drastic cuts to higher-education funding.
Now, ALEC is poised to muddy the water even more with an assault on public universities in the form of their Affordable Baccalaureate Degree Act. This model legislation will require all four-year public universities to offer bachelor’s degrees costing no more than $10,000. To get there, the universities would need to capitalize on efficiencies provide by web-based technology and competency-based programs. If ALEC members endorse the bill, they will begin circulating and promoting it in state legislatures while, no doubt, continuing to starve the schools of funding.
These policy directions aren’t about making things work better for the citizens of Arizona and other states, they are about making money for corporations. In fact, “deep cuts in funding for schools undermine school quality in part because they limit and stymie the ability of states to implement reforms that have been shown to result in better outcomes for students, including recruiting better teachers, reducing class sizes, and extending student learning time.”
Out of one side of their mouth, the politicians say we must send everyone to college so we can be “globally competitive,” but out of the other, they vote for continued cuts in education funding which almost assuredly ensure only advantaged kids will get there. Diane Ravitch asks: “How will we compete with nations that pay workers and professionals only a fraction of what Americans expect to be paid and need to be paid to have a middle-class life? How can we expect more students to finish college when states are shifting college costs onto individuals and burdening them with huge debt? How can we motivate students to stay in college when so many new jobs in the next decade–retail clerks, fast-food workers, home health aides, janitors, construction workers, truck drivers, etc.–do not require a college degree? (The only job in the top ten fastest growing occupations that requires a college degree is registered nurse.)”
These are big questions that demand serious solutions, not single dimensional responses designed to benefit a fortunate few. The only way to ensure the right outcome, is to ensure the right players are in the game. Educators, administrators, school board members, parents, community leaders, and business people must all engage to help us change course before the promise of education as a great equalizer becomes ancient history. As Michael Enzi , senior U.S. Senator from Wyoming once said, “if you’re not on the table, you’re on the menu.