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Public education is a labor issue, even if you don't care about teachers

July 10th, 2012 | Laura Clawson

Laura ClawsonThis year’s students are the workers of five or 10 or 15 years from now. There’s an obvious statement for you, but it’s one that is too rarely considered in discussions of education policy as hedge funders and corporate billionaires try to claim the mantle of doing what’s right for kids, implying or saying straight out that teachers are too self-interested to represent kids and should be left out of the discussion altogether. The fundamental question is this: If you don’t trust Wall Street or the Walton family to do what’s in your best interest as an adult in the American workforce, why would you trust them to do what’s in the best interest of the next generation of workers?

School, from the first day we set foot in a classroom to graduation from the highest level of education we achieve, trains us to be workers not only by teaching us math and grammar but by teaching us how to respond to instructions, orders, or discipline. It teaches us how to sit still, how to show that we’re making the kind of effort our superiors want to see from us, how to work toward socially approved goals. For many jobs and careers, school gives us training or credentials we need. The level and quality of education we get to a great extent determines what jobs we’ll be considered for, how likely we are to be unemployed, how much money we’ll earn.

So the structure of education in our country trains kids for what to expect as adults and says a lot about how we envision work and people’s access to good jobs. Deprive schools of funding and you’re creating a generation that doesn’t have the education needed to succeed. Or, you’re creating a big chunk of a generation that doesn’t have the education needed to succeed—some kids’ families will be able to buy them a better education directly, some kids will live in well-to-do areas where the schools remain well-funded or where wealthy parents can subsidize public schools heavily.

This then sets up the conditions to justify not hiring people. Already we hear about how there just aren’t enough skilled workers and that companies want to hire, honest they do, they just can’t find trained workers to do the skilled jobs for which they’re offering to pay a pittance. Or we hear how companies have to move jobs overseas, because, again, American workers just can’t hack it in the information economy. It’s mostly an excuse anyway, but you think that’s going to get any better in 20 years if our public education system is gutted now?

If you create a class of schools that, while theoretically public, can effectively exclude homeless kids or disabled kids or kids whose first language isn’t English, and leave all those excluded kids in the public schools you’re telling everyone are second best, you send a message about who’s desirable as students and who will remain desirable as workers. If a state happens to funnel its entire school maintenance budget to that separate class of schools, the message is reinforced again. If you tell everyone that the new class of schools is better (even if in fact the evidence suggests otherwise), but there aren’t enough spaces for everyone, you send the message starting ever earlier in kids’ lives that they are disposable, that some of them will be left behind no matter what. Public schooling should send the opposite message—that all kids deserve a good education, an equal education, that the government is invested in all of them and that they can all succeed.

But in America today, our public schools are not just underfunded. We’re not just losing schoolteachers at an astonishing rate. We’re not just setting up new classes of education rife with abuses and with profit put before educational outcomes. We’re not just turning education over to profit-driven, ill-supervised testing companies despite a host of weaknesses from measurement error to cheating. No, we’re doing all of this thanks in large part to a massively funded campaign by a bunch of really rich people who think they know better because they’re rich. We’re letting phone tappers and people whose money comes from a company that leads the field in undermining local economies and driving down wages and benefits fund the remaking of our system of public education.

Then there’s higher education, where at the same time as a college degree becomes a near-requirement for entry into the middle class, per-student government spending is at a 25-year low and the number of administrators, and their pay, has shot up, while the number of faculty who actually teach students, and their pay, has lagged behind the administrators. As public higher education becomes a more difficult option, for-profit colleges step in to fill the void, not by being cheaper or better but by marketing themselves more aggressively despite abysmal results. Students, meanwhile, are forced to take on more and more loan debt to get that college degree, meaning they enter the workforce already desperate, to the benefit of employers who can capitalize on that desperation to keep workers who might otherwise move on or fight back.

So while I believe that teachers are important—important because they are the ones in the classrooms every day, doing an incredibly difficult job for not very much money and because they are an important part of a middle class that Republicans are trying to wipe out of existence—I understand and write about education as a labor issue not just because Mitt Romney’s top education priority is to break teachers unions, but because Mitt Romney’s next education priority, one he can only get to after breaking the unions, is to privatize public education, weakening it as a public good that serves everyone close to equally and instead bringing profit in, creating more and more unequal outcomes. I write about education as a labor issue because when Romney tells teachers class size doesn’t matter, even though he sent his own sons to a school with an average class size of 12, that’s class warfare from above in a nutshell. Class size only matters if you can pay for it to be small. If you can’t, screw you, your kids will be in the swollen classes that result from firing their teachers.

Similarly, Romney slashed higher education funding while governor of Massachusetts, pushing more students into debt—not something his own trust fund babies ever had to worry about. I use Romney as an example, but of course it’s not just him, it’s his party. Rep. Todd Akin, running for Senate from Missouri, referred to federal involvement in student loans as “the stage three cancer of socialism.” Rep. Paul Ryan, who paid for college with Social Security benefits, wants to cut Pell Grants for a million students. Rep. Virginia Foxx has “little tolerance” for people with student loans, but champions the for-profit college industry that owes its existence to, and relentlessly seeks to maximize, those loans. And so on.

Education is a labor issue because it’s how we train children to someday be workers, determining many of the conditions under which young adults enter the workforce. It’s a labor issue because school funding represents an investment, or a failure to invest, in the mass of people. Abandoning them as children, whether by underfunding the schools they attend or putting corporate profits first, is basically a guarantee they’ll face worse as adults.

This blog originally appeared in Daily Kos Labor on July 8, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos. She has a PhD in sociology from Princeton University and has taught at Dartmouth College. From 2008 to 2011, she was senior writer at Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO.

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