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Joel Shatzky Headshot

Educating for Democracy: Kansas City School Closings: Are We Becoming a Second-Rate Nation?

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If what has happened in Kansas City -- with the announced closing of 29 of the 61 public schools -- is a symptom of our future, this country is going to be experiencing far more distress than we already have had from economic dysfunction: social disruption. An increasing underclass of young people, disproportionately minority, will have fewer educational opportunities that will lead to fewer good-paying jobs. The alternative to lawful employment, I fear, will inevitably follow.

According to a New York Times report, the reason for the drastic action by the Kansas City superintendant, John Covington, is because of

the school board's recent history [that] reveals a chaotic, almost nonfunctioning body that put off making tough choices and even routine improvements for generations.

The pattern of white flight from the Kansas City public schools to "better suburban districts and charter schools" mirrors the pattern that is being accelerated within New York City through some of the policies being followed by the Bloomberg Administration.

There's a bumper sticker slogan that's been around for some time; we need to be reminded of what it means: "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance." And the direction of our educational system, for an increasing number of young learners, or would-be learners, is toward more ignorance. School closings, for whatever reason, will only accelerate that trend with a higher drop-out rate as has been reflected in New York City schools, despite Mayor Bloomberg's misleading numbers on recent high school graduation rates.

What this country needs urgently, before the summer begins, is a way to address the problems of unemployment and underemployment of those most vulnerable to this economic crisis. But what is needed is not just another economic stimulus package, much of which is focused on tax credits for small business employers, while nationally, only 15% of businesses plan new hires, but a public works bill on the scale of the WPA or the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) which would enable unemployed young people to have some means of economic survival. These would not be "make-work" jobs that have no positive effect but jobs we need to preserve and improve our deteriorating public realm.

Over the past generation much of what in previous times we took for granted as "open to the public" in terms of parks, zoos, museums and other places accessible to everyone are falling into neglect or being privatized. This is a symptom of what we are becoming: a second-rate nation. We have a second-rate transportation system, a second-rate health care system for an increasing number of people, and certainly, a second-rate school system crippled by a bizarre accountability mania of measurement standards that contribute nothing tangible to the quality of learning and continue to undermine the efforts of good teachers to salvage teachable students.

I'm not fond of using statistics for measuring school "improvement" but some numbers can be instructive. In terms of infant mortality and life expectancy, two significant indices of the well-being of a nation, the United States ranks 46th and 50th. We have triple the infant mortality rate of Singapore, and for African Americans the rate is double what it is for the general U.S. population. As an industrialized nation, we are near the bottom in upward mobility, while in income distribution, we are also among the most unequal, with only China below us. The closing of public schools is a symptom of these statistics because it shows not only the nation's priorities now, but what has led us to this point: a diminishing concern by political leaders for the public good in the interests of private benefit.

In a recent news interview, the head of the Missouri PTA expressed her regret at school closings but also the lack of parental involvement in children's learning. Of course, this will be made worse by the closing of local schools that will move children out of their neighborhoods and make parental involvement even less likely.

But what causes lack of parental involvement? It's not just a matter of indifference or ignorance of the importance of education to give their children an opportunity to move out of poverty. It's the burden of single mothers, the most financially distressed group in the country, and two-parent income families that actually have to work two or more jobs each who have neither the time nor energy to give the attention their children need due to their poor-paying work and increasing debt.

At this point, in a crisis situation, there should be a sense of urgency for providing jobs to teens and long out-of-work adults into projects addressing public need. These would include an increase in the building of low-income public housing to reduce homelessness and more resources to repair the deteriorating infrastructure. Far more attention should also be paid to the maintenance of public spaces such as zoos, parks, libraries: places that should be free to the public but are now being privatized as a result of declining municipal and state support with entrance fees prohibitively high for low-income families.

School closings are a symptom of a nation that is falling away from democratic values into a more restrictive and authoritarian society where in the interests of the relative few, the state will regard its chief obligation the suppression and control of the many. Other signs of this anti-democratic trend can be seen by continued public support of "anti-terrorist" measures that undermine our rule of law and do little if anything to protect the public. This is reflected more specifically in the willful disregard for children's welfare in the administrative actions of the heads of the New York City and Washington D.C. public schools where the objectives of the "managers"--not educators--are to create a culture--through "behavior modification"--of subservient, low-wage workers for the benefit of those who are in schools that are actually educating the "leaders" who will become the masters of a future DSA (Divided Status of America).

The conservative politicians may have reason to fear continued deficit spending and increasing national debt as a legacy for future generations, although perhaps they might consider reducing a budget that accounts for fully half of the world's military expenditures. But regardless of the costs for programs that address the present crisis, I predict that if we do not act soon to address it, our legacy to future generations will be a country that more closely resembles a second-rate police state than a democracy.