04/11/2012 11:21 am ET Updated May 08, 2014

The Pillaging and Plundering of Public Education in America

During the Reagan presidency the people of the United States were warned that we were at war and must prioritize government spending. In 1983 President Reagan infamously decreed that, "defense is not a budget issue. You spend what you need." Reagan continued to increase the defense budget while inflicting deep cuts to the Departments of Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, Agriculture, Commerce, and most importantly Education. Under the guise of shared sacrifice and national security, agencies like the Department of Education saw an 18 percent reduction in budget under Reagan, while defense contractors were feasting on American tax dollars. Americans accepted reduction to these services, expecting these cuts to be temporary. The cuts to social services in the United States were accompanied by concurrent increases in Defense spending as well as a reduction in the tax rate for the wealthy, not exactly shared sacrifice. These maneuvers were all part of a philosophy championed by Neo-Conservatives and sold to the American people as their duty as loyal citizens to defeat the tyranny of Communism. In reality this was a political power play used by corporate interests, conservatives, and religious ideologues to reverse many of the advances in government services, meant to level the playing field a bit, that were contrary to their philosophical role of government.

President Reagan never hid his disdain for the Department of Education. One of the major issues he ran on in the 1980 presidential elections was his pledge to remove the cabinet position altogether. In 1982 during his State of the Union address, Reagan proclaimed "the budget plan I submit to you on Feb. 8 will realize major savings by dismantling the Department of Education." Since 1985 class sizes have continued to grow in public schools. In poor urban areas you can expect to see class sizes in the 35 to 40 pupil range, despite the fact that private school classes have maintained a 15:1 student to teacher ratio. Additionally K-12 curriculums have all but abandoned the arts. Budget cuts have forced difficult decisions that have led to the reduction and in many cases the elimination of, performing arts, music, and art programs as well as many after school programs like academic decathlon and mock trial. Many states have attempted to combat the problem of overcrowded class rooms but have been met with another challenge. In 1996 California instituted a class reduction program but found that they didn't have enough qualified teachers to hire nor did they have the funds to recruit talented individuals to teach. To add insult to injury, California lawmakers realized they didn't have the facilities to house these smaller classes. About 20 percent of the teachers they hired had emergency credentials and many of them were teaching in makeshift "temporary" classrooms, several of which are still in use today. Particularly hard hit for qualified instructors to no surprise were low income neighborhoods.

As I mentioned, it has become increasingly difficult to find qualified candidates to teach. Starting salaries for teachers in America have remained flat and in many cases have actually decreased. In Wisconsin, teacher's salaries and benefits have infamously come under scrutiny by the State Senate and recently elected Tea Party darling, Scott Walker. The average starting salary for a teacher in Wisconsin is just above $25,000. Adjusted for inflation that is actually less than Wisconsin teachers made just 10 years ago. How can you legitimately recruit someone with a bachelor's degree to take a job that makes slightly more than the federal minimum wage? To make matters worse, many state houses and ultra conservative governors like Governor Walker of Wisconsin, John Kasich of Ohio, Rick Snyder of Michigan, and Mitch Daniels of Indiana have declared war on public schools by slashing budgets and attempting to impede teachers' abilities to collectively bargain. These corporately backed state executives have attempted to paint public teachers as greedy, lazy, incompetent, and ineffective. These governors and their benefactors have demanded teachers unions forfeit pay, benefits, and time off while still handing out tax breaks to corporations, while diminishing State's coffers. Governors like Mr. Walker have claimed tax breaks, like the ones he instituted immediately after taking office, would create a trickle down of job growth. However, Wisconsin has actually seen an increase in unemployment of nearly 10 percent or 21,000 lost jobs in both the public and private sector in year one of Walker's term.

Several socially conservative and religious groups have also aimed to continue the divestment of public education in protest of the curriculum taught. Such groups tend to disagree with public opinion and scientifically accepted beliefs on climate change, prayer in school, evolution, sex education, history of minorities and the LGBT community. Many of these groups have sought to further the advancement of "school vouchers" that would allow parents to enroll their children in private schools with these monetary vouchers subsidizing or covering the private school tuition. Though vouchers can help individual students escape underperforming schools, it perpetuates the failure of the underfunded public schools that these students are escaping in the first place. The syllabus for private schools, particularly those associated with religious organizations; do not have to abide by the same curriculum standards that are taught in public schools, creating a generation of science deniers.

Higher education has not been spared from attack either. States are continuously reducing annual funding for their community college and university systems. In my home state of California, community college fees have increased nearly 300 percent in 10 years from about $11 a unit in 2002 to $42 a unit starting this spring. In 2002 tuition at my Alma Mater, UCLA was about $4,400 a year. By 2010 it had skyrocketed to nearly $11,500, which has also forced the university to accept more out of state and international students, contrary to the mission of the University of California system. These tuition increases are producing graduates strapped with more and more debt while diminishing the value and reputation of public universities.

Another expanding problem is For-Profit "universities". These institutions like University of Phoenix, Capella, and Kaplan to name a few have been described as "diploma mills" as they in essence accept and grant degrees to anyone willing to pay. These colleges recruit potential students regardless of qualifications, aptitude, or goals. Recruiters for these entities have been known to get bonuses for getting students to enroll and have also been subject to quotas by their supervisors. These schools in many cases have a board of directors and are publicly traded. These companies primarily feed on individuals that do not have the time or qualifications to enroll in nationally accredited universities, but claim the degrees earned by their graduates carry equal if not superior value to degrees earned at traditional schools. Military veterans have been a prime target of for-profit institutions, as their student loans are federally guaranteed regardless of merit or completion of education programs. Consequently, for-profit students are leaving school with copious amounts of debt and degrees that hold little value. Employers are aware of these institutions' primary objective, like any other publicly traded company is to make as much profit for their shareholders as possible. As we have seen these companies will always choose profit over prudence. From Enron to AIG we have seen corporations indifference to the collateral damage created as a consequence to their paper chasing.

Charter schools have become another beacon of monetary and philosophical exploitation. Originally charter schools were designed to create an atmosphere with higher expectations for students and give certain children in struggling neighborhoods the opportunity to matriculate in an environment that promotes structure and higher expectations. Charter schools were initially championed by progressives to create smaller classes and eliminate bureaucratic red tape; however, several Educational Management Organizations (EMOs) have sprung up with their own objectives, financial benefit being paramount. EMO's look to enhance profitability while suppressing public education models. Famed education historian and professor, Diane Ravitch, has estimated that 95% of charter schools are non union and expect their teachers to work significantly longer hours than public teachers. Additionally, social psychologist, John Kozol, has claimed "the education industry represents the largest market opportunity" remaining for privatization.

This is not just a right wing ideology but a culture of thought that now pervades the ranks of democrats and republicans. Several moderate and left leaning foundations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have also attempted to subvert public education through the promotion of their charter schools. The Gates foundation has struck mortal wounds to public schools by advancing the importance of standardized testing and merit pay for teachers.

Ultimately this entire issue comes down to two questions: What you believe the function is of the federal government? And which do you trust more; corporations or government? Is the federal government's function to impose its will with overseas wars while spending trillions securing our interests and those of our allies, or is it to collect and spend tax dollars altruistically to better enhance the chances of every citizen to pursue the American dream? We need to make sure all Americans have access to a premium education, not just those born with a silver spoon in their mouth. As noted by Professor Ravitch in the Wall Street Journal op-ed, "In [a] major national evaluation, 17% of charters got higher scores, 46% were no different, and 37% were significantly worse than public schools. ... The best predictor of low academic performance is poverty -- not bad teachers." Our foreign competitors have come to this realization, leaving the U.S. 20th in the world in education.

America needs competitive teacher salaries and continued investment in education infrastructure. America needs to reduce fees for community colleges and state-run universities. America needs to eliminate subsidies and guaranteed loans to for-profit universities unless these institutions can demonstrate they have significant career placement numbers and intrinsic value to offer their graduates. If we don't make these fundamental changes, the shared sacrifice will come at the expense of the American dream. So when someone says we need to cut our education budgets, that we can't afford these programs, I say: how can we afford not to? I urge you to invoke the words Mr. Reagan used to describe the defense budget, as education is best defense in securing the American dream, "defense is not a budget issue. You spend what you need."