Economic Crisis Savages Public Education

Capitalist crises, especially severe ones, are case studies in that system’s social costs.  Because the dutifully conservative economics profession rarely studies such cases, let’s do just that here by focusing on how the current capitalist crisis is damaging public education.  Deteriorating schools leave scars lasting for many years.  They undercut the quality of the skills and knowledge of the next generation in their individual capacities as workers, citizens, friends, parents, and so on.  Nothing less than this nation’s future is at stake.

At one end of the country, California’s Republican governor is cutting billions of dollars from the state’s public education institutions and programs to cope with the impact of a 12 per cent unemployment rate on state revenues.  The California Board of Regents on November 19, 2009 voted to raise tuition at the University of California (the nation’s largest public university) by 32 per cent and to impose similar increases in graduate student and professional school fees.  Tens of thousands of students have been excluded from public higher education enrollment this year in California.  Partly students’ deteriorating economic situations forced them to drop out, and partly they are responding to major tuition and fee increases in recent years.  Even at the state’s community colleges, fees rose 30 percent last year.  Instead of finding revenues for the state from those most able to pay and best positioned economically to weather the current crisis, public education gets savaged.  Meanwhile, “over the last two decades, the annual share of California’s total income garnered by the top 1% of the state’s earners went from 13.8% to 25.2%” according to the Los Angeles Times.

The explanation for this state of affairs exposes core problems of US politics.  Politicians depend on corporations and the rich for the contributions and contacts needed for election.  Campaigns for all major local, regional, and national offices now depend especially on buying expensive mass media exposure.  Candidates’ ads must pander to “common sense” ideas such as those that demonize all taxes and government economic interventions.  Those ideas are promoted by think tanks, foundations, university institutes, etc. likewise financed by corporations and the rich.

Politicians concerned about their careers dare not seek extra state revenues from the corporations and the rich.  Instead they cut state services not favored by their patrons.  Since children of the rich increasingly attend private schools or certain elite public schools, politicians end up cutting chiefly the public education that serves everyone else.  As US corporations shift ever more skilled jobs overseas, they need fewer educated US workers.

At the opposite end of the country, on New York’s densely populated Long Island, a recent study of public elementary and secondary schools documented anew the profound economic inequalities embedded within that part of the public education system in the US.  Such public schools’ funding depends on local property taxes plus help from the state government (as in all of the states).  The new study proved yet again the resulting unequal educational opportunity forced on this nation’s children: schools in rich neighborhoods could afford far better education than was afforded in all other schools.  The study’s lead author, Columbia University Professor Amy S. Wells, wrote: “In poorer schools, their ceiling is meeting state mandates; for more affluent schools, the academic floor is even higher than the poorer schools’ ceiling.”  She added, “We found that in some wealthy districts, there were hundreds of applicants for a single teaching job, while in poorer districts just miles away, schools had difficulty attracting a single applicant for a teaching job.”  In the study’s key conclusion: “There is a tremendous difference in what districts spend per-pupil.  Even the state funding formula which is supposed to even out the disparities between districts does not end up doing that when all the funding streams are looked at in their totality.”

The economic crisis sharply worsens these public school inequalities in New York.  The middle and poorer school districts display higher rates of unemployment and home foreclosures, more rapidly declining real estate values, and more tightly constricted family budgets than the rich school districts.  The resulting pressures to lower property taxes will be greater in the middle and poorer districts than in the rich districts.  School funding will suffer accordingly.  Inequality inside public education will grow alongside that between public and private education.  Deepening educational inequality will reinforce the subsequent inequality of qualifications, jobs, and incomes that this generation of young people will suffer.

Nor is the state of New York helping, let alone offsetting, Long Island’s deteriorating public schools.  On the contrary, responding to the economic crisis, Democratic governor Patterson this December cut $750 million from the current budget’s provision for schools and local governments and has proposed a 2009-2010 budget that would cut school aid by another $700 million while also imposing new fees such as an 18 per cent sales tax on soft drinks (“to combat obesity”), eliminating the sales-tax exemption on clothing and footwear under $110, and imposing a sales tax on cable and satellite radio.  While such aid cuts damage public education directly, the proposed additional regressive tax increases will further fuel demands for property tax relief that undermines funding for schools.

Reacting to the economic crisis, both Bush’s and Obama’s administrations have allowed the state and local funding supports for public education to decline nationwide.  Educational opportunities shrink as educational inequality rises.  From coast to coast, most students’ job, income, and life prospects fall ever further behind those of children of the rich.  The US government’s response to economic crisis might well be ironically renamed as “leave no banker behind.”  Yet a collapsing public education system threatens society’s future no less than a collapsing credit market.  A president who campaigned on a program of hope presides over its evaporation for most children.

Richard D. Wolff is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and also a Visiting Professor at the Graduate Program in International Affairs of the New School University in New York.   He is the author of New Departures in Marxian Theory (Routledge, 2006) among many other publications.  Check out Richard D. Wolff’s documentary film on the current economic crisis, Capitalism Hits the Fan, at  Visit Wolff’s Web site at, and order a copy of his new book Capitalism Hits the Fan: The Global Economic Meltdown and What to Do about It.

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