Educating for Democracy: School Closings and National Priorities

05/25/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In recent weeks a number of cities and states have announced school closings and teacher layoffs due to several factors including population shifts, budgetary problems and, as in the case of New York City, low scores on standardized tests. Although these factors indicate a complicated picture, my concern is that the notion of closing schools in itself for reasons that have little to do with student safety is a sign of a profound change in attitudes in this country toward equal opportunity for all young learners.

In Detroit, because of population shifts -- "white flight" -- the school population has precipitously declined in the past decade. Forty-four city schools will be closed and a recent cut in per pupil allocation will be offset from public employee pensions. In California 10,000 educators will be fired and in NYC 8500 will be laid off in addition to 19 schools scheduled for closing due to low test scores. In Kansas City -- with a similar situation as Detroit -- 29 schools will be closed and 1000 educators are being laid off in Chicago. These measures will certainly have an effect on reducing the quality of the education of young learners in these cities and states but there is no doubt that schools in more privileged areas and private schools will suffer little negative impact.

I am afraid that this trend will become more commonplace just as homelessness, which would have been regarded as a national disgrace and unacceptable condition in such a rich country as the United States forty years ago, is now considered by most Americans as not much more than a public nuisance. The more "tolerant' we as a nation become to signs of economic, social and ethical decay, the closer we will be to becoming a country in which democratic values will be regarded as too much of a "luxury" to be sustained or even fought for. School closings and budget cuts are, in my opinion, not only a sign of a shrinking economy whose impact is disproportionately felt by the majority, but of a decline in our standing as a nation.

I am convinced that there is more than enough wealth in America to address many of these problems far more adequately than they are now, but that would require a serious redistribution of wealth, through a fairer tax system, so that at least revenues for the public good would be more available. In the past forty years there has been a massive redistribution of wealth to the top 10% of the economic pyramid which is completely losing its shape. In 1970 the top 1% income bracket was taxed at a rate of 47%; it has now been reduced to 30%. At the same time, not surprisingly, their income rose from 8.4% to almost 20% while 1/3 of all the wealth: cash, investments, possessions, is now owned by that 1%. Today the bottom half of our population pays only 3.3% of Federal Income Taxes and owns 2.8% of the wealth. This looks more like the economic profile of what used to be called a "Banana Republic" than a Western democracy. And since this half of the population doesn't make enough money even to pay much taxes, the "tax cuts" constantly recommended by conservatives as the solution to any economic problem we face has no tangible effect on the poorest half of the population, that group whose children depend most on good public schools as their only path out of poverty.

If the tax structure of forty years ago had remained as it was, I don't think we would be faced with making such draconian decisions when it comes to our educational system. If there were also a serious reform in the way in which property taxes are computed, so that they would be tied to income rather than property values, and more evenly distributed nation-wide instead of district-wide, the vast inequalities in public school funding would be effectively addressed.

If these sound like radical proposals, I would suggest that signs of the alternative are clearly before us: the decline of the United States by the middle of the century into a country which we would not wish to bequeath as our legacy to future generations.