February 15, 2011

The time has come for individuals, as citizens and as educators, to critically examine their role within society and to honestly assess whether or not those in power are truly representing the interests of middle and working class Americans; particularly public employees. The time has come for issues to be viewed, for constructive purposes, through a black-and-white, wrong-or-right framework.

Regardless of what an individual’s general political opinions and affiliations may be during an election, fundamental values and essential beliefs regarding the role and purpose of public education are under attack; and the offensive is being waged by a specific party with a specific set of political goals. The “culture wars” should be set aside and the very real, very pressing “economic wars” should be confronted head-on by all of those whose careers and children’s futures are at stake. Those in power are making decisions that detrimentally affect those who put them in power, and if the people disagree with the decisions being made then the people should exercise their basic, fundamental, Constitutional right to speak, organize, and resist. The stakes are too high for the state of Texas and for the nation. An assault on the public sector is presently being waged across the nation in the name of “austerity” and “fiscal responsibility,” but where is the fiscal responsibility in allowing the foundation of our democracy, the public school system, to crumble as the defense budget remains untouched, as corporations maniacally exploit the populace out of endless greed, and as the wealthy continue to rig the tax structure in their favor?

Tonight, in Kingwood and all over the city of Houston, the halls of the hospitals are full of people waiting to receive care. The ER is full because Texas has the most uninsured people in the country. The irony of America is that a “grass-roots” movement like the Tea Party can organize to resist “socialized medicine,” while in reality, before our own eyes, in our own school districts, the private-sector continues its unabated march against anything and everything that is public. The Republican Party, the Tea Party and political conservatives believe, fundamentally, that the private-sector and the “competition” that it provides will result in better quality health care and their position regarding education is essentially the same.

Tonight, college students are contemplating whether or not to continue their teacher certification programs given that the state of Texas is potentially laying-off thousands of public school teachers. I recently graduated from a public university and received certification in both English and History with the intention of teaching as a career. I will complete a Masters degree this May and should consequently receive a higher salary next year; instead I will most likely be asked to teach more classes for less money, if I have a job at all. Is this the American dream? Is this what the “war on terror” is preserving?

Governor Perry and the Republican-dominated legislature in Austin insist that Texas deal with its “budget crisis” by drastically reducing funding for public education. It is not a coincidence that the Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives today rejected President Obama’s proposal to re-invest in education as “runaway spending.” Barack Obama (the liberal, “socialist”) is now completely capitulating to corporate America, but even he still understands that education is a non-negotiable if the country is to have a meaningful, long-term recovery. Meanwhile, the Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives, heavily pressured by the Tea Party Caucus, are pressing for even deeper spending cuts in the short-term (except to the military, of course).

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, a Republican, is waging an all-out war against public employees in that state with an attempt to end collective bargaining, reduce salaries, and cut benefits. Other pro-union states in the Midwest and Northeast are also under attack. To many Texans, uttering the word “union” is considered more offensive than not attending church; however, the erosion of the few “rights” that teachers do presently possess is being contemplated by those in power as I write.

State legislators are attempting to cut $10 billion from public education and this will move Texas schools backwards for an entire generation of students. The “budget crisis,” which is being used as the justification for these cuts was created by the same people who are now in power, and the “budget crisis” occurred due to the same economic policies they are currently supporting as the “necessary” solution to the problem. The state needs money? Why doesn’t the state raise taxes? The answer: the conservative dogma that lowering taxes, that cutting taxes, that giving tax breaks to corporations and the wealthy, will result in increased prosperity for everyone! Their response to any economic or budget issue is to “cut taxes” and “increase competition.” Well, cutting taxes results in lessrevenue to be spent on the public school system. Increased competition regarding education refers to “vouchers” for private schools or for-profit charter schools. Republican legislators argue that parents should have more “options” if their child attends an inadequate public school, but these same legislators are proposing deep budget cuts to the public school system that will result in further deterioration! The funding situation for public education will soon become a circular argument: public schools are inadequate… so the state should allocate more money for “vouchers.” The result: money is taken away from the public school system in order to make up for the “inadequacy” caused by a lack of money! The results of an under-funded system will be used as a justification for the further under-funding of that system.

The present budget proposals put forth by the legislature and the governor are simply a microcosm of what the Republican Party and the Tea Party want to enact on a national scale. The result will be what Chris Hedges describes in Empire of Illusion: “a nation that has been hijacked by oligarchs, corporations, and a narrow, selfish, political, and economic elite, a small and privileged group that governs, and steals, on behalf of moneyed interests.” Freedom is being redefined as the “free market” and the government simply ensures the “rights” of corporations to financially dominate the political process and exploit its employees. The Republican Party won the U.S. House of Representatives due to the Tea Party Movement, which considers itself a populist, libertarian movement opposed to “big government.” The irony of America is that “big government” is not the problem. Presently, the government (what remains of it) is the only thing standing between the citizenry and complete corporate domination and the privatization of all aspects of the economy. The private sector is governed by the profit-motive, while the government is concerned with the common good. The government is accountable to its citizens as its elected representatives, but the private sector is not accountable to anyone. Corporate America, since the Reagan Administration, has gradually chipped away at the power of labor unions and has slowly cultivated an influence on the legislative process that presently dictates what is discussed, written, and passed. The United States is becoming characterized by what Sheldon Wolin has coined inverted totalitarianism, which “unlike classical totalitarianism, does not revolve around a demagogue or charismatic leader. It finds expression in the anonymity of the corporate state. It purports to cherish democracy, patriotism, and the Constitution while manipulating internal levers to subvert and thwart democratic institutions.” Hedges insists that, “America has become a façade. It has become the greatest illusion in a culture of illusions. It represents a power and a democratic ethic it does not possess.” I disagree with the notion that America has gone too far down a certain path to redirect itself and I would like to address what I consider to be some myths and misconceptions regarding the “budget crisis” and public education that are presently preventing many people from becoming politically active and critically engaged.

In sum, I believe there are at least four myths or misconceptions that must be addressed:

Myth #1: Powerlessness. Lately, I have perceived in many people a passivity that indicates a belief that nothing can be done to prevent the gutting of the public school system. I could not disagree more. The legislature is already beginning to react to the uproar from the education community and the people concerned about the state’s public school system. The newspapers and cable news are reporting; let’s give them something to report!

Myth#2: Somebody else’s job; somebody else’s district. It seems that too many people are failing to recognize that this “budget crisis” is going to impact everyone. The decrease in funding will impact every district, every school, every classroom, and every student. Those who are fortunate enough to keep their job will be working more for less pay. Planning and grading will increase as class sizes and course-splits increase. Furthermore, the overall decline in the public school system will have long-term social, cultural, economic, and political impacts that will make future job security and quality uncertain.

Myth #3: This was unavoidable. It seems that too many people are failing to recognize that this “crisis” has its genesis in specific decisions made by the current governor and many of the current legislators. Governor Perry would like the public to believe that these “spending cuts” are in response to the national recession, but that is not entirely true. Legislation passed by the state legislature in the form of tax cuts led to the current situation. In other words, there is someone to blame and the economic and political decisions that led to this situation should be openly criticized. If President Obama can be blamed for the state of the nation’s economy, how can Governor Perry not be held accountable for the state’s economy?

Myth #4: The legislature does not have a choice. A source of the passivity among many people is the assumption that the only possible way to proceed is in the direction that the current budget proposals lead. The governor and the legislature arechoosing to tackle the “budget crisis” with cuts to education. They do not have to cut spending from education! They can be convinced to choose another path if the populace demands that they do so. The Rainy Day Fund can be used and new sources of revenue can be created. If the legislature is willing to change laws in order to decrease teacher salaries, why can’t the legislature change laws in order to allow new property taxes or other taxes that will generate revenue to not only resolve the current funding crisis, but also resolve the long-term funding issues that Texas will continue to face in the future?

A revolution started in Egypt after a video was posted on YouTube. The popular, democratic demonstrations were for a time suppressed by tear gas manufactured in the U.S. How far do we have to stray from our democratic values and traditions before the irony becomes a tragedy? The issue is black-and-white and the choice is between right-and-wrong. Demand that the right thing be done. Demand that public education be adequately funded. Demand that people should take priority over profit. Demand what is necessary of yourself to get the job done!

Update June 27, 2013

The Texas Legislature cut $5.4 billion from public education in 2011. I was laid off shortly after writing this article, but was fortunately rehired at the end of the semester. In March 2011, in support of public education, 10,000 people marched in Austin to protest the spending cuts as part of the Save Texas Schools campaign. In 2013, the Texas Legislature restored most of the funding that was cut in 2011, but Texas has a growing population that will require further increases in state funding. I have been teaching at Kingwood High School for three years and absolutely love my job!

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