Wednesday, May 11, 2016

In defense of public education

Public schools across the country are facing tough times. Budgets are tight, enrollments are increasing, student populations are diversifying, and pressure to privatize services and reduce staff is unrelenting. The situation in USD 259 is not unique.

Let me say upfront that there are times when privatization is in order. But there are also times when privatization is little more than a form of modern day piracy. This type of privatization transfer assets to the wealthy, and saddles the public and individuals who are least able to shoulder the burden with the costs. Privatizing custodian jobs in USD 259 and other efforts to protect certain jobs and benefits while asking others to sacrifice is morally offensive to me. It is protecting the privileges and power of some at the expense of others.

Privatization puts the burden of responsibility in the wrong place. The problem is not that custodians, teachers, librarians, nurses, aides and others are making too much money. The budget crisis was created by the state legislature and the governor when they decided to eliminate income taxes for the wealthiest 330,000 people in Kansas.

It is worth noting in the context of public education that the word public comes for the Latin poplicus, meaning "pertaining to the people." The word private comes the the Latin privare, from which we get the word "deprived." The Greek word for a strictly private person is idotes, from which we get the word "idiot," meaning a person who does something stupid--like robbing the public purse for private gain.

Although assurances are given that privatization will save millions of dollars, this assurance is not guaranteed. I would be surprised if privatization contracts contain clawback provisions that would reimburse school districts if the promised savings were not realized. I invite you to go online and read about school districts that have privatized custodial services, sold custodial supplies and equipment, and created an employment environment that invites high turnover for jobs that pay low wages and have few benefits. More than one school district reports that they had to spend millions of unbudgeted dollars for custodial services after they voted to privatize these same services to save money. The Chicago public schools is a well-documented study in the failure of privatization.
Schools are public places where people learn self-respect, gain new skills, and learn the values of cooperation and civic virtue. They are meeting places that offer the opportunity for creative inter-generational interaction crossing lines of race, class, and religion. Without this kind of public space the fabric of society soon becomes frayed, and public trust in our institutions begins to unravel.

Fighting to save the jobs of public school custodians is about much more than saving jobs--important as it is that we do this. Fair compensation for everyone who works in our public schools is about claiming, reclaiming, and protecting a vital public space and place that makes and keeps civil society civil. The classroom is where we first learn what it means to be "one nation, indivisible."

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