Arnold Schwarzenegger made a name for himself as the Terminator when he was a young Hollywood actor. Now as the governor of California, he has become a Terminator of a different kind. Instead of being an unbeatable fighting machine, Schwarzenegger is a fighter in an education battle that is sweeping the nation.
Arnold is one of many politicians firing teachers and privatizing public education systems because of financial issues. In 2009, California fired 16,000 teachers, and in March 2010, California handed out 23,000 pink slips that let teachers know they may not have a job next year.
Since the start of the year, 66 percent of school districts across the country have made cuts that include: firing teachers, cutting arts programs, and dismissing other school personnel deemed costly or unnecessary. That means that 34 out of 50 states have doled out firings in the past four months.
"What's happening in education today is unprecedented. Public education is being attacked," says Donna Stern, national coordinator for the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration & Immigration Rights & Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary (BAMN).
Forces behind the firings
There are two major forces driving these teacher firings nationwide: economics and privatization. The economics factor is easy to understand. The nation's economy is struggling, and because real estate taxes fund public schools, poor counties or states that are in a budget crisis -- like California -- are cutting spending wherever possible. The privatization of education is a more complex issue that focuses on whether the federal government should turn control of the nation's public school system over to private companies. According to edweek.org: "Advocates of privatization ventures see in them the combined virtues of government and business. They argue that government's oversight function and its responsiveness to the needs of citizens can be retained while taking advantage of private enterprise's ability to be more efficient, reduce costs, and maximize production-in this case, student achievement."
'Race to the Top'
The U.S. Dept. of Education "Race to the Top" program aims to improve public education by targeting four specific areas and thereby advancing reform. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is the mastermind behind this incentive program that rewards states that implement certain education measures and standards (usually standardized test scores in math and English), and punishes states that refuse to adhere to these reform measures.
Duncan is in charge of allocating $4.3 billion in education funds. States must participate in the "Race to the Top" competition if they want some of that money. For example, Tennessee and Delaware both agreed to be held to the testing standards outlined by the program, so they were awarded federal funds to help improve their public school systems. States that decline to be part of the program will not see any federal dollars for education.
On April 6, BAMN held a press conference on the "Mobilization Against 'Race to the Top" at the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C. The press conference was attended by local educators and activists, as well as representatives from several of the contingents who plan to attend the April 10th March on Washington to Defend Public Education from California, Michigan, Florida, New York and Pennsylvania.
These five states share a serious crisis in their public school systems. Plagued by financial concerns, these states are leaders in teacher firings, the growth of charter schools, and the use of standardized test scores as the only measuring stick of a student's potential. Stern says: "It is going to be the welfare zone of education. It will just be condemning; education used to be the great leveler, and now with privatization, the competition pits everyone against each other and destroys communities."
Teachers speak out
Are you concerned about the future of the school systems in this country with so many firings going on? Think about how the thousands of laid-off teachers must feel about it! Robert Smith* was a former mass media arts teacher with the District of Columbia public school system when he was fired just five days before his wedding. A victim of the Reduction in Force (RIF) measures that swept through the East Coast earlier this year, Smith was lucky enough to secure government contract work after his teaching days ended abruptly.
"It disorients you," he says. "In one day you not only lose your job, but you lose the countless students who you have enjoyed teaching. I felt empty and lost."
Smith believes that these mass firings send a message of distrust to students, parents and educators. "It also sends a message that we need to be more involved with our educational system. If these children do not receive a quality education, what will they become?"
The future of education
Sweeping layoffs, pink slips, RIF, closing of public schools, reduction of arts programs and the rise of charter schools are becoming prevalent practices in our education system nationwide and an increasing source of tension and argument among policy-makers, educators, businessmen, corporations, communities, parents, families and students.
With so many decision-makers involved in this process, and with so much money up for grabs in the educational arena, there is no way of knowing if this is the calm before the storm or the storm itself. All that we can say for sure is that the great equalizer is unpredictable at this point.
(*) name changed to protect the identity of the source