As is the case with all institutions, the educational institution is also the site of problems that need to be addressed for the sake of our society. Unfortunately, however, the approach that gets the most attention is the approach that ignores the systemic nature of the problems in education. Rarely is a holistic perspective taken to address the challenges faced in education. What makes matters worse is this trend we see: extremely wealthy individuals are disproportionately impacting educational policies, and the policies that are being pursued almost completely ignore the most important factors when it comes to education.
There is no doubt that teachers are the most important factor in a student’s academic experience within a classroom. At the same time, there are far more significant factors that impact learning that are outside of the teacher’s control and power. Perhaps the most important factor is the role social class and inequality play in the learning experience. There is no question that wealth and income inequality has grown in the past four decades and this has real consequences in various areas of a person’s life, including her/his education.
When you have a nation with over 15 percent of its population living in poverty and nearly half of those in poverty living 50% below the poverty line in deep poverty, you have a very serious problem. In addition to this problem, California has dropped from 5th in per pupil spending in 1965 to 35th in 2010. However, if you factor in cost of living considerations, we are 49th of all states and the District of Columbia. We are only ahead of Nevada and Utah when it comes to per pupil spending. California also ranks the worst in regard to student to school counselor ratio. In California, at least half the student population is low-income. According to a new study by the Southern Education Foundation, low-income students made up 54% of California’s public school student population. Nationally, 48% of the approximately 50 million public school students are low-income, and at least half the public school student population in 17 states in 2011 was low-income. California is one of those 17 states. Needless to say, the lack of school funding and the poor student-to-counselor ratios have a detrimental impact on working poor and working class students.
Instead of looking at the real challenges brought on by severe inequality and poverty, many of the solutions recently proposed to “fix” education have been overly simplistic, misguided distractions from the actual problems that impact learning. Instead of addressing social inequality and its negative consequences, teachers and teachers’ unions have become the convenient scapegoats. This is not to say that ineffective teachers should be ignored. There is a process that exists to address this problem. Due process is something that I would imagine every person would want in her/his workplace. Unfortunately, in recent times the issue has been further distorted by a handful of wealthy and powerful individuals.
Recently, we have seen extremely wealthy individuals and their foundations, such as The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, The Walton Family Foundation, and Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, playing a greater role in impacting education policy. The power of these individual families is tremendous and it undermines our democracy. Furthermore, the policies that are pursued are clearly shifting away from public education and moving towards charter schools and privatization of schools. The policies are also designed to undermine the power of teachers’ unions. This should not come as a surprise since Walmart, which is owned by the Walton Family, has been arguably one of the most anti-union corporations in the United States. The Walton Family Foundation has been involved in pushing for the privatization of education through instituting voucher programs and charter schools.
Now in California, David Welch, a multi-millionaire entrepreneur/venture capitalist from Silicon Valley, founded the non-profit organization that calls itself Students Matter. The other two founding board members are also venture capitalists Ajt Shah and Ted Schlein. Students Matter helped nine public school students in California file the Vergara v. California lawsuit. This writer is not questioning the motivations of the students or their supporters since there are obviously issues of inequity when it comes to education. The problem is that these well-intentioned people are being misled by wealthy and powerful members of our society, who do not necessarily have the interests of the working poor and working class in mind.
Instead of focusing on reducing the rights of teachers and undermining unions, which are there to ensure better lives for the masses, the public must educate themselves to the real threats to our public education system. These threats are inequality and the wolves in sheep’s clothing. It is good to see our union, the CFT, fighting against the public relations campaign being pursued by wealthy venture capitalists. We are the ones that are on the front lines educating the next generation. We must never allow a minority of wealthy individuals to drown out our voices and dictate educational policies. By being organized and opening up dialogue with our students and their families, we can work together to begin focusing on the systemic changes necessary to bring about a more equal educational experience for all.
Visit us on the web: www.glendale.edu/guild
and check out our new website for social networking and political action: www.gccguild.org