“Critics are like eunuchs in a harem; they know how it’s done, they’ve seen it done every day, but they’re unable to do it themselves.”
– Brendan Francis Behan
The above quote comes to mind whenever I hear politicians, most of whom have never spent a day teaching in their lives and nearly all of whom send their own children to private school, making pronouncements about who is to blame for the lagging performance of public schools in the United States. With a few notable exceptions like the late great Paul Wellstone, most folks in Congress have an incomplete understanding of what motivates teachers to perform at their best and what inspires children to learn and to excel, and this poor understanding of core issues translates into legislation based on the bizarre assumption that punitive measures and threats will cause teachers to work harder and students to learn what they need to. In the worst cases, political leaders in charge of education policy will lament the under-performance of American public schools while consistently voting to cut funding in an act akin to the man who wields the club in the “I’m not dead” scene from Monty Python’s Quest for the Holy Grail. It is a bizarre and disturbing trend, and Representative Paul Ryan is one of the worst examples of it.
Let’s look for a moment at Ryan’s voting record, according to ontheissues.org: Ryan voted no on bills to fund greener public schools, to provide grants for Black and Hispanic colleges and against increased federal funding for education. Right down the line, his votes are consistent with the hardline fiscal conservatism shown in his proposed budgets and proposed dismantling of social security and medicare. Every federal social program would face drastic cuts or outright destruction if Ryan had his way, and education is no exception. He has also voted to require states to test students, voted that Courts cannot rule about the use of ‘under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance and that prayer should be allowed in schools during the War on Terror. So, while school buildings will crumble and supplies will dwindle, at least American public school students will be allowed to pray about their plight.
Ryan has also called for cuts to Head Start for preschoolers and the Title I program which provides federal funding to students whose impoverished status means they receive free or reduced school lunches. None of this is to say that these federal programs are perfect, but as a teacher in a Title I school I can attest to the fact that school budgets are already cut to the bone: reductions in funds for teachers to buy supplies, computer labs where half the equipment doesn’t work, layoffs causing classes to be cut year after year and less funding for after school programs are all part of the picture here in New York City. The federal funding for special education is one of the only things keeping myself and others with my certificate safe from job cuts, and a “make cuts no matter what the cost” ideologue like Paul Ryan is the absolute last person we need influencing policy at the national level.
Obama has not been the perfect ally of teachers and their students during his term in office. His support of firing the entire staff of a failing Rhode Island school and the addition of unnecessary paperwork and bureaucracy to a teacher’s day under the Race to the Top program are just two examples. However, Obama’s votes and positions on issues of substance relating to education are far preferable to those of a man who will eviscerate programs for America’s most vulnerable children, more for ideological reasons than actual budgetary ones when you consider how much less these programs costs than the tax cuts for the rich and increased defense spending the Romney/Ryan ticket is planning on. My message is clear: unless you can afford to supply your children with adequate schools and programs to support them out of your own pocket, your best interests are not served by a vote for them.
Guest post by Eric Severson, NYC Department of Education