Rebuilding Public Schools

By Spencer Klink

Sewage, insects and mold are not items one would expect to find in a typical public school, but for many students under the American public education system this is an unfortunate reality.

A 2016 study conducted by the 21st Century School Fund, the U.S. Green Building Council and the National Council on School Facilities determined that funding for public schools is currently falling short by $46 billion.

Some of these problems are relatively small, such as leaky roofs or broken bathroom appliances. However, several other issues pose large threats to students, including lack of air conditioning which enables viral conditions to spread, asbestos in roof installments that could lead to cancer and lead pipes that contaminate drinking water.

These classrooms are certainly not suitable learning environments. In fact, they are the exact opposite. The Lawrence Berkeley National Lab determined that schools with poor ventilation rates, which are becoming more widespread as buildings fail to modernize, directly result in an increase in respiratory illnesses among students as well as an inability to stay alert and effectively complete assignments.

To make matters worse, these infrastructure problems are not distributed evenly. According to the National Education Association, there is no designated funding at the federal level for public education, so schools end up falling back on local funding. Because of this, impoverished communities are often the sites of schools with poor conditions.

Schools in lower-income districts are therefore forced to face instability and make difficult choices. A school can either restore broken facilities at the cost of dipping salaries and other important issues, or leave the facilities in poor condition without putting teachers at risk. Overall, public schools are caught in lose-lose situations.

When this problem of wealth inequality is considered, the impact of poor learning environments is even more devastating because impoverished students don’t have a solid educational base that they can use to find a job, preventing social mobility and resulting in the continuation of poverty.

Underinvestment also has an intricate connection to the school-to-prison pipeline, which refers to the tendency of disadvantaged students to be imprisoned. Lack of funds in certain schools means that low-income schools lack the resources that enable them to escape criminal behavior and are structurally excluded from successful lives. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, an overwhelming amount of victims of this system are African-American students or disabled students. In the case where students avoid juvenile detention, risks of suspension or expulsion remain, which again is a problem that disproportionately affects the lived experiences of black students.

Although this chronic underfunding is not a new problem, the scale it has reached is a recent development. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics indicates that there is a nationwide trend of decreasing constant pay, or income based on the cost of living, for teachers. For example teachers in West Virginia, who went on strike in March of 2018, earn nine percent less on average than West Virginian teachers in 2000.

This problem will likely only worsen as time goes on. Sylvia Allegretto, an economist at University of California, Berkeley, said that even unionization among teachers, while able to mitigate the problem, is overall incapable of preventing salaries from continuing on the downward trend.

The structure of the public education system is undoubtedly guided by neoliberalism, or the latest shift within capitalist economies in which maximized privatization is viewed as necessary to achieve liberal ideals of freedom or progress. Neoliberalism has had a particularly devastating effect on the public education system, with competition and productivity in capitalist markets being the sole indicators of success.

The lack of investment within public education is also a necessary part of neoliberalism, as it demonstrates that government-sanctioned programs are being undercut to empower the private sector. At the same time, the shift toward privatization casts blame on individuals rather than the broader structures that cause these problems. For example, the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind policy that sought to reform lower-income schools, although seemingly guided by sound intentions, was ineffective because it asserted that individual schools were at fault while ignoring the flawed basis of the American public education system.

This is not only an injustice, but an attack on democratic ideals, enabling elites to maintain their grip on American politics as lower classes are continually stripped of necessities like education. To make matters worse, President Donald Trump and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have made numerous attempts to cut funds for federal education and will likely to continue to do so in order to “drain the swamp.”

Although isolating the flaws in public education is easy, developing a solution is far more complicated. However, there are a number of steps that must be taken on the path to developing a more egalitarian public education system.

First, it is necessary for teachers to continue building up a resistance to chronic underfunding. Activism among teachers has already begun. In March, teachers in South Carolina carried out protests and strikes to demonstrate their opposition to the current form of public education within the United States.

It is important for these movements to maintain a stable end-goal that serves as a guiding foundation for its resistance. This is what sets apart valuable activism from activism that falls short of what it seeks to do.

If the activism sparked by teachers against underfunding for schools was guided by feasible political demands, their strikes and protests would be able to operate very effectively. One example of a demand could be for progressive tax programs to obtain funds for school infrastructure.

Until these demands are made, it is important to consider the faces of chronic underfunding as a reminder of who needs the help. Think of the students in Baltimore, Maryland and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania who had to sit through lessons in unheated classrooms in the winter.

Think of the schools in Detroit, MI that don’t have the resources to provide enough desks and chairs for all of its students. It is necessary to continue to fight for their well-being.

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