Public Education as Social Justice

Many of us here in the grassroots talk about our movement for public education as a civil rights issue. But what does that mean? In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, whose life and legacy we celebrate today, it seems appropriate to consider how our fight for public schools is a fight for economic and social justice.

Perhaps most importantly, we need to see the ways in which budget cuts and corporate-style-reforms have actually hurt our poorest students, who are often students of color. Pennsylvania has been under-funding and inequitably funding schools for decades. The legislature’s own “Costing-Out Study” back in 2006 estimated Pennsylvania was short-changing kids by $4 billion and established a six-year plan to phase in more appropriate state funding. But Governor Corbett’s historic 2011 budget cuts of nearly $1 billion scrapped the plan, disproportionately affecting our poorest children by re-setting state funding calculations to the previous, inequitable formula. [See “A Shameful Betrayal.”]

Pennsylvania also relies heavily on local property taxes to pay for schools: it falls in the bottom ten of all fifty states in the nation in the proportion of education funding provided at the state level, pushing responsibility instead down on local school districts. This exacerbates inequalities, as wealthier communities are able to afford adequately funded schools and poor communities struggle. Urban areas with high proportions of un-taxable non-profit and government owned property (such as Harrisburg) have been especially hard pressed to find the resources they need for schools. As a result, some poor districts actually wind up taxing their residents at an even higher rate than wealthier areas. Deindustrialization, which has hit Pennsylvania’s rust belt towns particularly hard, has drained population from many urban centers, increasing the burden on remaining residents to pay for infrastructure such as schools (just look at what is happening in Duquesne). And white flight to suburban areas has hardened residential racial segregation.

Funding inequalities, then, have reinforced both the effects of poverty and trenchant racial disparities, contributing to a persistent racial achievement gap. Let’s remember that 26% of all children aged birth to age five are now living in poverty. That’s over a quarter of our kids. And the connection between poverty and education is crucial: we know that middle class students in the U.S. attending well-resourced public schools actually rank at the top of tests with our international peers. [For more, see “Poverty and Public Education”]

We also know that corporate-style-reform measures – “school choice,” high-stakes-testing and accountability, privatization, and school closure – have affected our poorest students the most. School-choice models such as charter and cyber charter schools, vouchers, and business scholarship tax credit programs drain resources from public schools while educating only a tiny fraction of students. Most children remain in their local public schools with fewer resources. And those schools are often labeled as “failures” using the results of high-stakes-tests and punished with further cuts and even closure, causing immense disruption to communities.

These corporate-style-reforms have also created perverse incentives for local decision makers. Teachers have to “teach to the test;” districts have jettisoned music, art, languages, and history to focus on just those things that will be tested (reading and math); principals are forced to choose staffing a first grade classroom over a school library. Looking at education as an economic and social justice issue requires us to think about more than just budgets: it’s about students having books on their library shelves and a full-time librarian so they can use them. It’s about access to music and art and teachers freed from the chains of high-stakes-testing so they can teach, human being to human being.

This weekend the Post-Gazette reported some extremely important findings from the “Pittsburgh Regional Quality of Life Survey,” conducted by the organization PittsburghTODAY, under the auspices of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Social and Urban Research. [Post-Gazette, 1-20-13] Among other things, this survey looked at education in the greater Pittsburgh region – what we call Yinzer Nation – and found some important differences along racial lines (which in our area has tended to be reduced to a line between black and white).

First some good news: the researchers found that residents in our area, regardless of race, think highly of their local schools. At least 8 out of 10 survey respondents rated the quality of education as “good,” “very good,” or “excellent.” Significantly, the report notes that “only 3% of residents overall who had children in school felt the quality of education was poor.” [Unless otherwise noted, all data from The Pittsburgh Regional Quality of Life Survey, July 2012.] That means that those who are actually using the school system and are most familiar with it feel overwhelmingly confident in it. That’s in stark contrast to the narrative of “failing public schools” which we constantly hear from the corporate-reformers. What’s more, compared to a 2003 study, Allegheny County residents report an increased level of satisfaction with their schools: from just over 65% rating their schools as “excellent” or “very good” in the survey ten years ago, to nearly 70% giving their children’s education that rating now.

However, African Americans were twice as likely as those of other races to rate their children’s education as only “fair” or “poor.” Similarly, more than two-thirds (67%) of African Americans say school funding is “generally inadequate” or “completely inadequate.” That rate is also twice as high as non-African Americans. And perhaps most stunningly, “only 14.9% of African Americans considered their schools to be very safe, while 51.4% of residents of other races characterized their schools as such,” and were also “much more likely than other races to describe their schools as somewhat or very unsafe.” These are significant differences that reflect real disparities that we must remember as we think about public education as a social justice issue.

The survey found other results important to our grassroots movement. First, it appears that folks are becoming increasingly concerned about school funding. In Allegheny County alone, the proportion of residents scoring school funding as “generally inadequate” or “completely inadequate” rose from 26% in 2003 to 35% in this latest survey, with the rate of those who considered funding to be completely inadequate more than doubling. And while about half of all residents in Southwest Pennsylvania would like to see greater spending on schools, about 89% of African Americans support spending more on public education. [Post-Gazette, 1-20-13]

Finally, as we think about the collateral damage being done to our schools in the name of corporate-style-reforms, let’s focus on the fact that 68% of those surveyed say that arts education in schools is “very important” or “extremely important.” Fewer than 4% said it was “not important” at all. The report noted that, “Support for teaching the arts in school was the greatest in the City of Pittsburgh, where nearly 74% of residents consider it a very important or extremely important endeavor.” Overall in the region, 82% of African Americans rated arts in the school as “very important” or “extremely” important versus 67% of non-African Americans, perhaps reflecting the reality of where budget cuts have hit the hardest.

These numbers ought to fuel the fires of our movement and propel us to strive for greater inclusiveness in our grassroots efforts. As Dr. King said in his famous letter from a Birmingham jail in 1963, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

4 thoughts on “Public Education as Social Justice

  1. Thank you from a yinzer expat living and teaching in a public high school in metro Denver, Colorado. Our movement to expose the fraud of corporate reform is growing by the day, an blogs such as yours are helping spread the word.

  2. The politicians in our state government are in open violation of their Oath of Office in not upholding the Pennsylvania Constitution which says:

    Article III Section 14.
    The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.

    Article III Section 15.
    No money raised for the support of the public schools of the Commonwealth shall be appropriated to or used for the support of any sectarian school.

  3. Although it doesn’t necessarily lend itself to better advocacy, IMO it’s worth observing that the erosion of public education is really corrosive to political and social community too. When people learn to disdain public education they weaken the most important mechanism whereby we reproduce national (and local) identity and unity. Class and racial divides are reinforced not only because opportunities are unequally distributed, but because there are almost no public places where kids of different class and racial backgrounds really mix and form social bonds.

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