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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 4/21/18

What Happened? Why Did It Happen? The Decline of Public Schooling in California and the United States.

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Message Gus Bagakis

Public schooling, a personal experience

I sometimes long for my grandchildren to enjoy the experience I had as a student in the Oakland public schools in the mid-'40s and early '50s. At Whittier Elementary school (K-5) I learned the three Rs. I was also introduced to music--the violin, art, drama, libraries, and we even had counselors who knew our names. As a first-generation child of Greek immigrants, I also learned English, mostly from the other students. We had field trips to the zoo, to museums, to musical performances and cultural events. We had after-school and weekend programs. Whittier was a neighborhood school. The parents (mothers), children, and staff watched out for one another. During summers, we had free summer school and recreational programs. We lived in a safe world. Although the neighborhood wasn't wealthy, it was a reflection of the traditional fathers-go-to-work and mothers take-care-of-the-household, working-class America. We could walk freely to school, and our bathrooms and drinking fountains worked. There were no metal detectors or police monitoring us.

Upon reflection, I remembered that there were only two black children in my school, siblings from the one black family in my neighborhood, and I'm sure their experience was quite different. I now see that my wishes for my grandchildren were based on my early self-centered childhood memories. Still, educators, historians, and the media agreed that the schools in California were among the best in the world in the 1950s. Now public schools, along with many public institutions, have deteriorated. It is interesting to note that praising the inspired student reactions to the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, was attributed by one analyst to the fact that "The students of Stoneman Douglas have been the beneficiaries of the kind of 1950s-style public education that has all but vanished in America."

What changed? A Short Historical Survey of California's Educational decline

Between the 1950s and early 1970s, California had one of the best public education systems in the nation. By 2015 it moved to 45th. This history was nicely laid out in the documentary "First to Worst" (2004). It pointed out that school funding in the '50s and '60s was in the hands of local communities. That funding approach was questioned in 1965 due to the Watts revolt in Los Angeles, which exposed the effects of racism on the educational inequities between districts, where the rich (mostly white) outspent the poor by as much as 4-to-1. The response to this inequity was the Serrano v. Priest ruling (1968), which tried to even out funding by limiting state spending to a few thousand dollars per student statewide. The outcome was described by some as "equalized mediocrity."

Property taxes, the source for funding schools, grew rapidly due to inflation beginning in the 70s. Homeowners reacted to this added expense by passing Proposition 13 in 1978, which reduced property-tax rates. It protected against future taxes by requiring a two-thirds majority vote to pass new taxes. Proposition 13 led to cuts in art, music and language programs in schools, as well as physical education, counselors, nurses, librarians, and libraries. Many schools became overcrowded and rundown as the state's population grew while local property taxes could not keep up with the need for new facilities. The effects of the two-thirds requirement for new taxes inspired other states to join the reduction parade, resulting in the decline of schools and the late-coming response of the current teacher's strikes.

Educational funding decreased while the needs of the system were rising due to population increases and immigration. Responding to this situation was Proposition 98, which was narrowly passed in 1988. While not adding new revenue it amended the constitution, requiring a larger fraction of the state budget be spent on K-14 education. The state of California also settled the Williams v. California civil-rights case in 2004. The settlement required California public schools to adjust wealth-based discrimination and provide students with the resources they needed to learn. Still, it was difficult for those schools with the worst conditions to hire trained teachers. The effects of the 2007-8 recession also reduced educational funding. The continued decline of the quality of public schooling convinced voters to temporarily raise taxes in 2012 with Proposition 30, followed by Proposition 55, which extended the income tax on high earners through 2030. California is no longer the worst but it lags behind most states.

Why Has Public Education Declined?

Public education has been defunded because our economy transitioned from FDR's new deal, which gave workers jobs, unemployment assistance, social security, and hope, to neoliberalism, a type of capitalism that replaced the state with the market as a way to coordinate the economy. It stood for a world in which the individual is transformed from a citizen into an independent economic actor. The transition to neoliberalism led to massive tax cuts for the rich, a gradual destruction of trade unions, growth in wealth inequality, deregulation, privatization, unemployment, and the decline of public services (including public schools). The prisons and the military-industrial-complex were exceptions; their funding grew. This transformation was part of a larger cultural shift that began in the '70s and '80s when policy-makers began to view education as a private rather than public good.

Even though neoliberalism failed in 2008 recession, its policies continue to drain funds designated for public services, including public schools, and in their place encourages privatized enterprises. Although only 10 percent of the pupils in school are currently in private institutions, the DPE (Destroy Public Education) movement is growing and has the support of large educational philanthropies and the federal government. This conservative lobbying effort was driven by organizations like ALEC(The American Legislative council), Americans for Prosperity (AFP), and state chambers of commerce. All of these organizations lobby, often secretly, to reduce corporate taxes and, in effect, deprive public education of needed state and federal funds, while supporting privatized schooling.

To counter this movement, citizens must get involved with local schools and school boards, which are some of the few remaining areas in which concerned citizens can be effective. People need to join organizations like the Network for Public Education Action, learn about public schooling's history and the underlying economic background, and be familiar with the talking points of the DPE movement. Activists can gain power by following the inspiration of the West Virginia teachers' wildcat strike, giving inspiration to other teachers, and the bravery of the students, from Parkland, Florida as well as the growing student reaction in many other schools. The generosity and solidarity of the West Virginia teachers demonstrated that organizing to stop the effects of neoliberalism can spread, and is more effective when it's bottom-up organizing allied with the local community's needs.

Whittier elementary school, the stimulus for this article, was closed in 2010. It was replaced by Greenleaf Whittier School, a K-8 school, that is apparently doing well, with an enthusiastic staff and student body, and has received many awards. Its population, much poorer now, reflects the change in Oakland's neighborhoods. White flight was a major contributing factor in the changing racial demographics of Oakland neighborhoods in the 1960s, and black flight is occurring presently as urban housing in the bay area gets more expensive. Greenleaf Whittier's student population is now 73 percent Latino, 21 percent African American, and 6 percent Asian. Ninety percent of the students use the subsidized lunch program. The neighborhood is also considered dangerous by its citizens.

As heroic as teachers and administrators may be at Greenleaf Whittier or other schools, and with the current uprisings of teachers and students, there is still an area that educators rarely investigate, that they think is beyond their control: a deeper look into the cause of the decline in funding--the changing economy and priorities of corporate capitalism.

The real problem isn't found so much within the school system but in the political economy. This insight will allow educators to better inform and organize the community to struggle against the maneuvers of corporate capitalism. (A discussion of this looming task will be the subject of the upcoming article: "No more public school for you! The priorities of corporate capitalism").

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retired philosophy instructor and social activist

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What Happened? Why Did It Happen? The Decline of Public Schooling in California and the United States.

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