This Unholy Mess


The Sickness of Our Priorities

What could be less sexy than a discussion of K through 12 public education? Paper plates? Roadkill? Elton John?
And that’s just the point. Public schools get little respect because there is always something more exciting to talk about, especially if the nation’s president is a jabbering, demented loose cannon. But public schooling is now elbowing its way into the news cycle in a big way.
In the last few weeks, to the surprise and chagrin of legislators in various cheapskate—not to say corrupt– states around the country, public school teachers have come alive. They are in the streets, demanding not just higher pay for themselves, but decent levels of per-student funding as well. Gone are the days when teachers could be expected to be obedient little drones, keeping their heads down, staggering along under the burden of not just teaching unmanageably large classes, but reviewing homework, supervising extra-curricular activities, and whatever else administrators could pile on. They are now noisy, defiant, and determined. They have found the word that describes the situation created for them by politicians: Disgraceful.
Social media outlets have made it easy to punch through all the static, the harrumphing, the excuses legislators usually offer as a smokescreen in situations like this. On any number of platforms, you can find the most shocking videos of school neglect: coverless, shredded 1988 textbooks by the shelf-load; broken desks and chairs sitting in classrooms with moldy ceilings and floors; Black Hole of Calcutta restrooms whose stench is luckily left to your imagination. These are the places that our leaders have provided for the education of our young people. It’s hardly credible.
I only wish this were a case of states failing marginally to increase school funding to keep up with inflation and cost increases, but it’s far worse than that. In fact, since the 2008 financial crisis many states have taken a meat ax to their education budgets.
Which states are the worst offenders? Glad you asked, because if we begin naming names, a clear pattern emerges. Here’s a hint: eleven of the twelve with the deepest cuts are—how should we put this?—as red as the jowls of an embarrassed politician. Starting with the champion, Oklahoma (a 28.2% cut), the rogues gallery includes such stalwart champions of family values and protection of children as Texas, Kentucky, Alabama, Arizona, West Virginia, and Mississippi. The only blue state among them is Michigan, in the 10th worst slot, with cuts of 9.2%.
Since the 2008 financial meltdown, states, like individuals, have been strapped. Understood. So if we are looking for a fig leaf, some way for states to mitigate their shame about leaving public schools in near-ruin, we might use the Great Recession (which should be called a Depression) as an excuse. But it’s hard to make the Meltdown into a decent scapegoat when you consider that seven of those twelve worst culprits in cutting school funding also cut income and corporate taxes during that same period, 2008 to the present. So rather than at least maintaining these revenue streams at status quo, helping to carry the load, legislators thought it would be appropriate to give breaks to individual taxpayers and to long-suffering corporations, whose execs certainly must have been living with tattered cuffs on their Italian suits. This, to make absolutely sure that schools would be starved.
The Perp Walk in Print looks like this: Oklahoma, Arizona, Mississippi, Kansas, North Carolina, Idaho, and yes, Michigan.
Another Fun Fact to keep in mind is that the federal government has done no better than the states. Though federal aid averaged around 12% of total state K-12 school budgets in 2008, that percentage has drifted down to about 8%. Even most recently, when the Pentagon has seen lavish hikes in its budget, providing for programs it had not even asked for, schools have gone begging.
None of this is a crime, of course. It’s worse than a crime. Crime is a transgression against laws that society puts in place, laws that recognize and enforce common values among its citizens. If people were robbing schools in this way and were then prosecuted, that would be a recognizable world. As it is, robbing our schools IS the law, put into effect by our “representatives”: an embarrassing revelation of values lost, a statement of our moral vacuity.

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