Since the No Child Left Behind Act was passed in 2001, the state of public education has become abysmal in many urban areas. As mentioned in my other blog about private prisons and the creation of a permanent underclass, a school-to-prison pipeline has been created in many areas. I argue that the concurrent defunding of public education through the No Child Left Behind Act and the privatization of juvenile detention facilities creates a permanent underclass that is meant to fill prison beds. My last blog examined the prison side of the pipeline, while this one will examine the educational side.
NCLB was supposed to close the educational achievement gap by introducing high stakes testing and federal mandates as a precursor of public funding for education. Public schools are expected to reach a proficiency level of 100 percent in this year in order for their funds to remain intact. Schools with large ESL and special education students are held to the same test score standards as their native English-speaking, non special education students. By the last count, nearly half of all American public schools are now considered failing. Once a school has not reached its benchmark test scores for two years, teachers are fired, the administration is fired, and the school closes and then is taken over by the state or replaced by a private or charter school, which themselves are controversial and are not required to meet the same standards as regular public schools.
Instead of abolishing NCLB, the Obama administration has instituted even more punitive measures in its Race to the Top program, as it moves the accountability for tests scores down from the state to the individual teachers. This encourages teachers to focus on 'teaching to the test' and many schools now exclusively focus on teaching English and Math skills and barely teach Social Studies, the Sciences, Music, Art and Physical Education due to focus of the standardized tests required by NCLB. In addition to increased scrutiny, teachers have been increasingly subject to vilification for the entire nation's educational woes. Teacher's only benefits, such as collective bargaining rights and tenure have disappeared in states like Wisconsin and Tennessee. While many people have issues with unions, the abysmally low salaries of our teachers provide most educators with little incentive to teach.
Every politician in the U.S. argues that they want to improve our educational standards, but none of them move towards repealing NCLB or paying teachers higher salaries. As more urban 'failing' schools close down, more students will end up utilizing school voucher programs to attend private or charter schools, if they do not end up in juvenile facilities. Voucher programs are also extremely problematic, as they divert tons of public tax payer money earmarked for education and give them to private or charter schools. People have supported the voucher program, as it is named 'school choice,' and this discourse allows parents to feel empowered, through giving them a neoliberalized model of choice: have your child attend a failing public school or an unregulated charter school or a parochial private school. These are not in fact real 'choices,' since attending a successful public school is often no longer even a possibility for many students.
I argue that the goal of NCLB is not to close the achievement gap, but instead is aimed at widening that gap and destroying public education at the same time. I wonder, once public education is destroyed in this country, will we revert back to the days where only wealthy students were guaranteed an education? Will poor students need to find a wealthy benefactor, like Mozart did, in order to attain an education? Will we no longer provide a guaranteed education to every citizen? This is why I argue that we are creating a permanent underclass with the defunding and destruction of public education. And once again, this permanent underclass is often composed of African American and Latino male youth. Since NCLB's passing, schools have officially become more segregated than they were forty years ago.
As an academic, we are often told to be critical but are rarely encouraged to offer solutions. However, in this case I would like to propose a solution. My solution is to work to convince our local congressmen to repeal the No Child Left Behind Act, as well as Race to the Top, and work with teachers to write a new educational bill that does not measure success based entirely upon test scores. We also need to pay teachers higher salaries and restore some of the basic incentives for teaching, such as collective bargaining and tenure. Another important step in this process is to petition local government representatives to end private incarceration and redirect money from incarceration towards education. Education is the key to lowering crime, but the U.S. spends $40,000 on each prisoner and spends $8,000 on each student. This number needs to be reversed. Elections are coming up soon and we need to make this issue a major priority in every campaign.