Sunday, May 20, 2012

Education Crime Scene

$77,920,000 (2007)
$452,480,000 (2011)

Each month most readers of Harper's turn first to its trademark Harper's Index on page 11 -- a full page of numbers that tell interesting, sometimes disturbing, stories. The most frightening numbers in the June 2012 issue are these, describing an alarming increase in venture capital speculation in education start-ups.

My friend Vernon often quotes Balzak's observation -- from 19th-century France -- that "behind every great fortune is a great crime." (Note: Honoré de Balzac was born on this date in 1799; he was a writer and a coffee fiend of unusual ferocity.) Contemporary sociologist James Petras elaborates, explaining how the growing class of billionaires (fewer than a thousand people with more wealth than three billion of their planet-mates) have manipulated the powers of the state to their own benefit. In a separate article, he explains how the ruling classes often use anti-state language to facilitate their personal use of the state. The adulation of the private sector is shameless, growing even as obvious counter examples mount, such as the examples set this week by Curt Schilling and Jamie Dimon.

Just as Eisenhower warned of the Military Industrial Complex -- which has allowed for billions of dollars of "bombs not bread" spending -- so we now see an emergence of an even more insidious Educational Industrial Complex. Using Orwellian terms like "No Child Left Behind" and "Race to the Top," investors in charter schools and high-stakes testing regimes are quickly moving to bypass educators and to separate taxpayers, students, and teachers from their money.

Even as early ideological supporters such as Diane Ravitch are admitting the flaws in mislabeled "reforms," politicians across the narrow political spectrum are embracing privatization and testing regimes that pretend to hold teachers accountable, while offering no accountability for the reforms themselves. Meanwhile, inside education, an ever-increasing amount of space, time, and decision-making power is given over to private companies and wealthy individuals.

In Massachusetts -- which is dominated by Democrats but not liberals -- higher education has been savaged over the past decade. A state that already lagged behind most of the rest has continued to cut operational funding. (I might sound ungrateful, since I work in a building undergoing a $100,000,000 renovation, but already we are seeing the limitations that tight funding has placed on the actual educational components of that project.)

Some relevant numbers from closer to home were compiled by Dr. Ira Rubenzahl, President of Springfield Technical Community College. On his blog celebrating public higher education, he reports the following trends over the past decade:

State Appropriations for community colleges and state universities - DOWN 11%
Student Charges at State Universities UP 168%
Student Charges at Community Colleges UP 86%
Numbers of graduates at State Universities UP 12%
Number of graduates at Community Colleges UP 21%

Shifting the burden from the current budget to future debtors and from the general public to the current student body is both counter to conservative, pay-as-you-go rhetoric and oblivious of the value of higher education to the entire society. Those who are in school are doing both themselves and their entire communities a service. They should pay a reasonable share of the cost -- as most of who went to college up through the 1980s did -- but they should not be shackled by onerous debt because governors and legislators refuse to recognize the value what they do.

The burden falls particularly heavily on those who wish to pursue careers in K-12 education. Even though administrative and consultative employment is flourishing, the ranks of actual teachers are shrinking while the obstacles grow. And in Massachusetts, future teachers must pay a minimum of $750 to a private testing company for poorly designed trivia tests (a.k.a. MTEL) before they can even enter some education programs.

Today's rant is not just about whining and hand-wringing though. Students, educators, and even some administrators are becoming organized in PHENOM, the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts. Advocacy work in this area is difficult, since student leaders inevitably gradate and many faculty members in Massachusetts are simply worn out by decades of lost battles and empty promises. But in recent years PHENOM has grown in numbers, energy, and sophistication, so it is a group that has the best chance of rewarding effort with some results.

The phenomenal students of PHENOM at
the State House.

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