Friday, January 14, 2011

The Fundamentals that Bernanke and Obama Miss

By Greg Jobin-Leeds and Saulo Colon

I wrote in an earlier blog that “Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke was correct when he stated that educational differences contribute to the U.S. having the biggest income disparity gap of all industrialized nations” but that “he overlooks the fundamental and critical issue of economic inequality”.

This post focuses how the current economic crisis and our nation’s misguided tax policies are damaging public education, increasing the inequality that threatens our children’s and our nation’s future.

In California, like many states, the governor is cutting billions of dollars from the state's public education institutions. Deteriorating schools are leaving scars on our children that will last for many years. Declining funding undercuts the quality and capacity of the next generation. Instead of generating revenues for access to quality schools--by increasing taxes on the wealthiest 1%--California’s governor, like almost every other, sacrifices the public education of our children and future adults. Meanwhile, according to the Los Angeles Times, the economic disparity gap in the state widens with the share by the state’s total income earned by the top 1% going from14% to 25%.

Why is this happening? Politicians depend on the wealthiest (corporations and the rich) for election contributions--and surround themselves with these contributors and lobbyists. This situation exposes the increasing reality of America’s economic system. Campaigns for all major local, regional, and national offices depend on buying expensive mass media exposure. Candidates' ads must propose as "common sense" ideas that benefit these wealthy contributors--such as the demonization of tax increases for the wealthy and that the government should bailout banks instead of homeowners. They promote the myth that somehow tax cuts for the wealthy will mean more jobs and deny the reality that the tax cuts mean cuts to social program employees. These ideas are also promoted by think tanks, organizations, university institutes, etc. that are financed by the wealthy. Similarly, newspapers and TV are owned by the same corporations.

Politicians concerned with reelection and a future career in corporate America dare not propose increased state revenues from corporations and the rich in order to fund social programs like public education (where their children don’t go). Instead the politicians cut state programs not primarily used by their patrons even though the programs serve everyone else--the majority. As corporations send more skilled jobs overseas, the wealthy who own these corporations need fewer educated US workers. This is a key reason why there is less and less support by both political parties for quality public education from kindergarten to affordable universities. This is why so many students are beginning to protest the cuts.

In New York a recent study of public elementary and secondary schools reveals the stark economic inequalities of the public education system, the two Americas resulting from unequal educational opportunities for our nation's children: "In poorer schools, their ceiling is meeting state mandates; for more affluent schools, the academic floor is even higher than the poorer schools' ceiling”. Minimal standards for these affluent schools are not even expected, thus not funded, for poorer schools. A court decision in New York that the government is only obliged to guarantee an 8th grade education further exemplifies this disparity of expectations. In addition, in response to the economic crisis, NY’s Democratic governor cut $750 million from the budget's provision for schools and local governments and then proposed that in the next budget, school aid be cut by another $700 million.

In our current tax structure, the current economic crisis is exacerbating educational inequalities. Working class, poor and middle class school districts have higher rates of unemployment and home foreclosures, declining real estate values, and smaller family budgets than wealthier school districts. This situation creates a short-term need for lower property taxes by these homeowners which, in the long-term, lowers the local school funding available to their children. As the US education scores decline relative to our international counterparts, it’s important to note that the US is the only industrialized nation that funds schools with local instead of national dollars. Coast to coast, most students' job, income, and life prospects are falling further behind those of the children of the wealthy class and countries that prioritize education and social service. Failure to fully support our public education system and provide every child an opportunity to learn threatens our society's future as much as our current housing and jobs crises.

State and federal legislators, governor and president should reverse the last 30 years of tax cuts for incomes over 1 million dollars a year, and close of all corporate loopholes (a savings to America of a trillion dollars!). These steps would make possible the full funding needed for an opportunity to learn for all. Join students, parents and teachers who are campaigning against these cuts. Join us and others in the Opportunity To Learn movement.

For more information and ways to get involved on budgets, taxation and revenue, go to websites like Fiscal Policy Institute, Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and National Priorities Panel.

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