Recently, I attended a community meeting in Philadelphia aimed at protesting the enormous budget cuts in public school funding the government is implementing. This meeting, unlike other community meetings I’ve attended, gave the participants a real feel for the fact that the legitimate fight against cutbacks in public education will continue.
I’ve attended several other community meetings that claimed to ask for recommendations from citizens as to what improvements might be made in the city government. The Philadelphia Inquirer and university professors were the ones who organized these meetings.
Community meetings of the past
One of the earlier meetings that I attended was titled, “Great Expectations,” because the organizers felt that citizens had a legitimate right to expect great things from the city government. Another community meeting asked the participants to come up with ways to cut the city budget.
At this meeting participants were asked to eliminate entire departments that might be considered “low hanging fruit.” The “low hanging fruit” supposedly signified the least desired departments. I always thought that a good place to start would be in eliminating the so-called “ethics department.” Since nothing the managers of the city government do is in any way ethical, I feel that the existence of this department isn’t necessary.
At these meetings I attempted to impart a different perspective. I argued that working people in Philadelphia deserve an improved standard of living. However, the city government is on an all-out drive to make sure our standard of living continues to deteriorate. Understanding this reality, I argued that instead of making suggestions to city hall, we need to organize a movement to fight against all cutbacks in social services. While some people respected this point of view, most participants viewed this perspective as inappropriate.
The response to the cutbacks
The recent community meeting started with a film documenting the cutbacks in public education in Philadelphia. About 23 schools have already been closed and over 2,000 school employees have seen their jobs eliminated. The film estimates that by the year 2017 a total of 64 schools will be closed. Clearly, this would only happen if the city meets no opposition to its budget cuts. The panelists made a strong argument that the city government’s hopes of driving through these cuts will be challenged.
Looking at the fight against these cutbacks, we might also look at a few facts. First, we can look at the 1954 Supreme Court ruling of Brown vs. The Board of Education. In this ruling the Supreme Court decided that segregation in public education is illegal.
The city of Philadelphia borders on the Lower Merion School District. When someone walks across the street on City Line Avenue this person walks into a school district where per student funding is double of what it is in Philadelphia. The large majority of students in the public schools of Philadelphia are Black or Latino. The large majority of students in the Lower Merion School District are Caucasian.
Other facts that might be considered are that Philadelphia has the largest tax abatement program in the nation. This means that corporations don’t need to pay taxes on new construction for ten years. The amount of money not paid in taxes due to tax abatements amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars.
The city has also spent hundreds of millions of dollars on sports stadiums and the convention center. Hundreds of millions more has been spent on interest payments on municipal bonds.
The result of these economic policies has been that today Philadelphia and Detroit are the two poorest of the large cities in the United States.
No Child Left Behind
Current school policy follows a government mandated plan called “No Child Left Behind.” This program claims to teach students to pass tests in reading, writing, and arithmetic. Requiring students to dedicate themselves to passing these tests undermines any effort to inspire students to learn the subjects they are studying.
The Labor Department has estimated that most jobs in the future will not require a college education. These jobs include: nurses aids, waiters, security guards, housekeepers, and truck drivers. Understanding these facts we can see that the program of “No Child Left Behind” is aimed at meeting future corporate interests.
The fight against school cutbacks in 1971
I graduated from Arts High School in Newark, New Jersey in 1971. During the years I attended Arts, Newark had the longest teachers strike in United States history. This situation prompted the students to teach our own classes and to put forward our own demands.
Listening to those teachers, parents, and students who are fighting against public school cutbacks today reminded me of my high school years 43 years ago. The biggest difference between then and now is the economy. Back in the 1970’s jobs were relatively easy to get. Clearly these weren’t good jobs, but people had a chance to pay their bills and raise a family.
Today, unemployment has reached the highest levels since the depression of the 1930’s. Even working people who have jobs find it much more difficult to make ends meet. Most of the better paying jobs require a college education, and the cost of that education is astronomical.
All of these facts point to a new reality where the fight against all cutbacks will become more and more determined. Mass movements promoting the rights of labor, civil rights, and the movement against war were the primary way progressive change came about in this country. Judging from the meeting I attended against cutbacks, young people are beginning to learn this invaluable lesson.