Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Is This a Recovery?: Hidden Unemployment and the Crisis in Education Funding

Is This a Recovery?: Hidden Unemployment and the Crisis in Education Funding

A real program is needed to create employment and reverse budget cuts

by Abayomi Azikiwe
Editor, Pan-African News Wire

A recent article in the Detroit News confirms what most working people in Detroit have been saying for some time and that is the official employment figures issued by the federal government do not give an accurate description of the depth of the economic crisis inside the city. According to the article, the actual rate of unemployment in Detroit is closer to 50 percent rather than the nearly 28 percent that has been reported over the last several months. (Detroit News, December 16)

Detroit has been seriously affected by the economic crisis because of the large numbers of people who were employed in the automotive and steel industries. General Motors Corporation, which was one of the largest employers in the Detroit metropolitan area, has trimmed hundreds of thousands of jobs over the last two decades. The other two auto firms, Chrysler and Ford, have also eliminated tens of thousands of jobs just in the last few years.

The massive elimination of jobs in the automotive and steel industries has had a tremendous impact on other sectors of the economy including retail, health care, entertainment, culture, housing, education and public service. This ripple effect is clearly demonstrated in Detroit and the state of Michigan during the present period where jobs cuts have been carried out on a broad level.

According to a University of Michigan Professor George Fulton, who analyzes employment data for the state of Michigan, a broader definition of joblessness is needed in order to get a more objective view of the economic situation in the state. In the official calculations of employment data, those who are working part-time, who have become discouraged and are no longer actively seeking jobs, and people that are returning to school because of the economic situation, are not factored into the overall rate of unemployment.

The Detroit News article reports that “The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that for the year that ended in September, Michigan’s official unemployment rate was 12.6 percent. Using the broadest definition of unemployment, the state unemployment rate was 20.9 percent, or 66 percent higher than the official rate. Since Detroit’s official rate for October was 27 percent, that broader rate pushes the city’s rate to as high as 44.8 percent.

Impact on Education

In the field of education, Detroit has witnessed a reduction in enrollment of approximately 100,000 students over the last decade. Many of these youth have left the city with their families who are in pursuit of employment. With the loss of students, it is inevitable that schools will be closed down and teachers, clerical workers, custodians, social workers and counselors will lose their jobs.

Another major contributing factor to the decline in enrollment in the public school system is the “charterization” of public education in Detroit and the surrounding communities. Over the last decade the notion that charter and private schools are inherently superior to public institutions has been advanced through the corporate media, private corporations and segments of the political class from both the Republican and Democratic parties.

Although there is no scientific empirical evidence proving that charter schools provide better curriculums and get greater results than their public counterparts, in fact some studies suggest just the opposite, the movement towards privatization of education is well underway. Even the Obama administration is firmly on record in support of charter schools as well as merit pay for teachers.

Both the expansion of charter schools and the policy of merit pay for teachers undermine the unions which are often characterized by the corporate media as bad for student achievement. The onus of good or bad academic performance in the public schools is often blamed on teachers and parents. Yet the drastic cutbacks in public education funding by the states is very rarely taken into consideration by the corporate media when they address the problems in school performance.

A new initiative of the Obama administration is "Race to the Top."--a national education policy which encourages the “charterization” of public schools. In the state of Michigan, the legislative body in the capital of Lansing passed a major education reform bill which was a prerequisite to receiving $400 million in federal funding under the Obama administration.

The highlights of the recently passed legislation that was rushed through to meet a deadline prior to the end of 2009, includes the expansion of what is called "high quality charter schools." The legislation also gives the state the green light to take over up to 5 percent of schools that are labeled as performing poorly. In addition, the new so-called reform legislation allows some professionals to gain certification in teaching without training in education and to permit school districts to give merit pay to teachers utilizing federally mandated standards of school performance. (Sunday Free Press, December 20)

Unions representing school educators have opposed this new legislation saying that it undermines their collective bargaining rights and capacity to win decent contracts for teachers. “This strips employees of their voice in helping students in these struggling schools,” said Doug Pratt, the spokesperson for the Michigan Education Association (MEA). “It is completely inappropriate.” (Sunday Free Press, December 20)

At the same time that this federal money is being offered to the state, in Michigan education funding was slashed $350 million for the 2009-10 fiscal year. These cuts have not only impacted Detroit with its over 80 percent African-American population, it is also affecting the suburban communities who are also being forced to lay off teachers, cut pay, close schools, eliminate academic and sports programs in order address the loss of funding.

For example, school districts outside Detroit including Dearborn, Highland Park, Livonia, Bloomfield Township, Southfield and Lathrup Village have been forced to make recommendations that will close buildings, lay off educators and eliminate transportation for students. In these communities thousands of parents have rallied at school board meetings to demand that the cuts be halted. However, school administrators and board members say they have no choice but to make these cuts in light of the drastic reductions in state funding.

In a recent article published in The Sunday Oakland Press, the cutbacks taking place in Southfield and Lathrup Village were highlighted. Both of these districts have also experienced declining enrollment in the public schools.

The Oakland Press article written by Connie Cuellar says that “The Southfield Public Schools 2009 Citizens Task Force on Declining Enrollment recommended a financial action plan to the school board this month that calls for closing schools, including Southfield-Lathrup High School.” (Oakland Press, December 20)

Lathrup Village Mayor Frank Brock said that “The task force exhaustively reviewed enrollment, trends and projections, current finances, financial forecasts, district programs and instructional services while developing the recommendations.” Brock, along with Southfield Councilman Myron Frasier, co-chaired the task force and recommended that the district close Eisenhower Elementary, Leonhard Elementary, Thompson Middle School in addition to Southfield-Lathrup High School. Students from these schools would be transferred to other buildings in the district.

The Southfield-Lathrup school board will take the recommendations of the task force as a first step in arresting the mounting budget deficit reaching into the millions of dollars. “This year is the very, very worst. The community has to contact their legislators in Lansing and tell them that this situation is intolerable,” said Dr. Wanda Cook-Robinson Superintendent of Southfield Public Schools. (Oakland Press, December 20)

The Citizens Task Force wrote in its report that “Given the current economic condition of Michigan and the declining state revenues, Southfield Public Schools cannot afford to operate all of the schools it currently has.” Mayor Brock of Lathrup Village was quoted as saying “This is a time unparalleled, in my memory at least, of the history of the school district, and in many school districts.” (Oakland Press, December 20)

The Need for Fightback Program for Jobs and Quality Education

Even though there have been large protests against the cutbacks in school funding throughout the state, these demonstrations and speak outs have been organized on a district-by-district basis. What is needed is a broader program of struggle that can build coalitions across district lines and link the reductions in school funding to the overall economic crisis facing the United States.

In recent meetings of the Moratorium NOW! Coalition to Stop Foreclosures, Evictions and Utility Shutoffs, organizers have discussed strategies to address the economic crisis. An appeal went out last month urging people to pressure Gov. Jennifer Granholm to impose a blanket moratorium on utility shutoffs for the winter. DTE Energy routinely terminates services for over 150, 000 households every year.

Other upcoming actions will include the annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day rally and march in Detroit scheduled for January 18. One of the major themes of the MLK Day celebrations for 2010 will be the need for a real jobs program in Michigan and throughout the country.

Members of the Moratorium NOW! Coalition will also take another delegation to Lansing for the Governor’s “State of the State” address in late January. The Coalition is still pushing for a declaration of economic emergency in Michigan which has an official unemployment of 15 percent for 2009. However, in using the broader definition of joblessness, the actual figures have climbed above 20 percent.

The Coalition also wants to address the draconian cuts in school funding by working to build the March 4 national mobilization against the crisis in education. University students across the United States are gearing up for a day of protest which will demand the restoration of funding for both higher education and k-12 public schools.

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