The Accountability Hoax

Governor Corbett’s secretary of education doesn’t want to talk about the $1 BILLION in cuts to our public schools. In a speech to the Chamber of Business and Industry in State College earlier this week, all Ron Tomalis wanted to talk about was accountability. That’s a nice word, accountability: very grownup, responsible, implies you are thinking about outcomes and consequences. But the poor word has been hijacked by the forces of school privatization.

First, watch how Sec. Tomalis slips out of talking about the massive state budget cuts and turns it into a problem of teaching. “Everyone wants to invest more in public education, and I get that,” he told the roomful of business people. “But we also need to balance that with what our expectations are. … We need to get it so that the impact of the labor is such that we’re getting a good (return on investment) on our $26 billion. I don’t think we are.” [Centre Daily Times, 5-16-12] Ah, see? What we have here is a labor problem not a funding problem. We’re not getting enough out of our labor.

By which he means, of course, our teachers. This purposeful labeling of teachers as “labor” is meant to convey by linguistic association their role as unionized workers. And make no mistake, teachers unions and other unionized educational workers are under attack right now. Take for instance Philadelphia, where every single bus driver, janitor, and maintenance worker got a pink slip this year – 1,400 members in all of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). [Philadelphia Inquirer, 1-3-12] Unions are not perfect – and neither are school boards or district administrations – but we absolutely need them. (I’ll save my Labor and Union History 101 lecture for another time, but here’s the takeaway: we still need ‘em.)

Blaming teachers and suggesting that public schools are failing has become the main plot line in a national, ultra-conservative education narrative. (This is “What I Told the White House” about the need to stop painting public education with the failure brush and to start focusing on real problems where they exist.) Students aren’t learning, this story goes, because we have too many bad teachers interested only in their supposedly cushy benefits. The solution is to close public schools, hand them over to private charter companies, implement vouchers so that public money can go to private schools, get rid of unionized workers, and impose ever-stricter testing requirements on students.

Sec. Tomalis told his audience that we need more student testing with end-of-class PSSAs and that our real problem is teacher quality. While we can all agree that we want an excellent teacher in front of every classroom, Tomalis completely missed the point when he asked, “Would you rather have your child in a class of 25 students with an outstanding teacher or 20 students with a so-so teacher?” [Centre Daily Times, 5-16-12] Twenty-five students in a classroom? We are talking about 30 students in my son’s classroom next year. Christine Chirdon, a Sophomore at Shaler Area School District, told us at the Rally for Public Education back in February about having 32 students in a classroom and not enough desks for everyone to sit down. (Watch a short video clip of Chirdon’s moving testimony here.)

The real issue is that the state has cut $1 BILLION from its public schools, forcing nearly every school district in the state to increase class size. This has nothing to do with the quality of our teachers. Yet Tomalis continued in this vein, saying that the state has been emphasizing early childhood education and now he’s worried about first through third grade: “The gains of full-day kindergarten will be lost if first- through third-grade education isn’t strong.” Actually, the gains of full-day Kindergarten are being obliterated because state cuts have eliminated full-day Kindergarten programs in many districts and some places are even yanking half-day Kindergarten. (For examples, see “Insane, Irrational, Irresponsible.”)

If only the state was spending $26 billion on education, as Tomalis is so fond of implying. Did you notice how he slipped that figure into his comments about our “return on invesment”? His spokesman, Tim Eller, has been throwing around that scary-sounding figure for the past two months as well and newspapers never fail to run the number without questioning it. [For example, see “Enough with the Spreadsheet Debates.”] To be clear: the state proposes to spend $10.6 billion next year on education – this includes early childhood, K-12, higher ed, and our public library system combined. [2012-2013 projected budget] That $26 billion figure includes local, state, and federal contributions to education.

In fact, Pennsylvania ranks in the bottom ten out of all fifty states in spending on public education. And the PA legislature appropriates almost $500 per student per year less than the national average, and less than all of our contiguous states. (See “A New Mantra” for details.) We don’t have an accountability problem, or a teaching problem, or a labor problem. We have a funding problem.

Accountability used to be such a nice word. But “accountability” is now a convenient framework in which to plug the privatization agenda. What we really need is a framework committed to our students with adequate, equitable, and sustainable public funding for public education.

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