Teachers, Tests, Corporate Welfare and the Death of Public Education

By C. Arthur Reavis 

New York State’s new teacher evaluation system, particularly the use of standardized test scores, is another critical blow to our already starving public education system. In addition to these “reformed” methods of evaluating teachers and the newly imposed “rubrics” Gov. Cuomo’s new property tax cap and proposed “tax-free” zones will decimate public school districts in New York.

Since the adoption of “No Child Left Behind” the influx of private and corporate money, specifically money associated with the “Race to the Top,” public school educators have been forced by Republicans and Democrats to promote a Capitalist model for public education at every level. Rather than give each school and the students in those schools, an equal chance of success, these federal reforms are creating a permanent two tiered education system by funneling more money to already wealthy schools and even less money to poor schools. In addition, this Capitalist model promotes intellectual complacency towards authoritarianism and encourages mass consumerism. After all, the corporate model of success that Wall St. favors is one that is greed oriented, morally vacuous and unrelentingly self-interested in its devotion to the dollar. Why should education be any different?

After reading several of the new rubrics, I find some of the criteria to be what one would expect: Knowledge of the material, classroom control, planning, preparation, assessment, family out- reach (but to every family, not just when the teacher deems it appropriate) and monitoring of student performance…etc.  But, in order for a teacher to be scored “highly effective ” in many of a rubric’s several areas of evaluation, that teacher is expected to put forth an extraordinary amount of uncompensated time, such as; being required to “participate in after school activities and school events.” No CEO on the planet is asked to work off the clock just to keep his or her job. Additionally, many aspects of these rubrics ask that teachers be held responsible for things well outside their control. Linking student test performance to teacher’s job security holds teachers responsible for all manner of social issues that impact student’s ability to do well on tests including societal ills like institutionalized racism and sexism, mental health issues and just about every home-life issue one can imagine. If a student’s sibling commits suicide and a month later that student is still grieving, leading to poor test results, the teacher is held responsible.  

Part of the evaluation is the direct observation/peer review portion – 60% of the entire evaluation. But, this portion may also contain parent and student survey questions. (So far Syracuse is the only district in the State to agree to include how students answer these survey questions). It should be noted that these student/parent surveys are being pushed by a private company, Cambridge Education LLC, under the fancifully named Tripod Project. Again we see local tax dollars going to outside private enterprises, rather than staying in the public trust.

The other 40% of a teacher’s evaluation is evenly divided among other measures of  “student achievement”, which are to be decided by the local Districts and Unions, and student growth on state exams. The important word here is ‘growth’ because if a teacher, even a tenured 25 year veteran who has never had a poor evaluation in his or her career, shows a decline in test scores two years in a row the school district can legally let them go: Sayonara, and Vaya con Dios! Furthermore, the evaluation portion based on test scores is going up to 25% as soon as the NYS Board of Regents adopts a value added growth model. The value added growth model is somehow supposed to convert all the social ills, behavioral problems and learning disabilities that face some students into a numeric value, in order to “weight” the test scores. Good luck on that one!

All this “reform” was based on the idea that parents had no choice in schools or how their children were being educated and that some schools were “failing.” It was/is true that some schools were and are failing to provide a decent education across the Nation. However, this failure was seen by the Right, and more recently the Democrats, as failure of unions and governments. Never mind that for the past 33 years there has been a slow progression of removing money from the middle-class and handing it over to the economic top 1% by lowering tax revenues disproportionately favoring that top 1%. This bleeding of the middle-class has been compounded by cutting social welfare programs that stabilized the nation as a whole and fueled the growth of the middle class. These programs included; education itself, food stamps, job training programs for the unemployed, subsidized school lunches, subsidized housing, mental health services, Medicare, Medicaid…and so many more social welfare programs that I’m simply not going to list them all.

Enter Gov. Cuomo: One of the first things he does once in office is cut education spending by over $40 million State wide. Then he and the legislature impose a property tax cap that directly impacts local school districts and many of the services they offer. Not to mention, the long term effects these caps will have on teacher salaries and schools in general.

In fact it is clear that this property tax cap does not make sense in Upstate communities like Broome County.  First, in Broome County, per student spending is below the state average (approximately $16,000 a year versus the state average of over $18,000).  Second, property values in Broome County are low, which means higher rates of taxation even though the average property tax bill is less than half of what some Long Island residents pay.  Third, everyone who owns their own home and lives in it receives STAR benefits, a program that reimburses homeowners for some of their property tax expenditure.  What this means is that area schools already doing more with less than most counties in New York, and local homeowners pay less taxes.  But this also means that local schools depend on increased tax rates more than downstate districts that have extremely high property values. For example, when rates go up by $2 per $1,000 of property value (the current per year property tax increase cap) in the City of Binghamton relative to Suffolk County, school districts in Suffolk County bring in four times more money than in the Binghamton School District!  That is a huge disadvantage for local kids. 

Gov. Cuomo has now proposed “tax-free zones” that would create up to 120 million square feet of NYS real estate that would not pay property, corporate, sales and NYS employee income tax for new companies or companies that decide to relocate to these specific areas of NYS. This plan stipulates that the companies would be tax exempt for 10 years (just like a Broome County Industrial Development Agency PILOT agreement) and the employees of those companies would also be tax exempt (property and income tax) for 5 years. Imagine having your neighbor, with 5 children paying no property tax, school taxes, or income taxes for 5 years while you pay all of the aforementioned taxes? Their kids go to the same school as your child does, their family uses the same educational resources, water, sewage, garbage collection…etc. Moreover, the private company they work for contributes nothing either to the local tax base for 10 years. Who do you think is going to make up the difference?

It may not seem obvious at first that teacher evaluations and tax breaks are not related, but they are. Teachers are being asked, as a condition of their continued employment, to not only be responsible for things that happen in the classroom but also for what happens outside of it, at the same time social services are being cut, thus limiting the possibility for teacher or student success. The teachers are also being asked to teach to a test that has no consequences for the students taking it. Yes, the school children receive no grade or consequence for how they perform on these State mandated tests but teachers receive both! This is occurring in combination with dwindling tax revenues and more corporate welfare. So what little community resources that were being pumped into the local schools districts are now being diverted to corporations in the hope that they will employ more people who also pay no taxes. “More labor for less compensation” is the Capitalist mantra. Essentially, what our State government is doing is priming the population including, our teachers, for the privatization and Capitalization of our long trusted public services. Once privatization occurs, due process and individual freedoms, including academic freedom for teachers (and ultimately students) will go out the window. Teachers are essentially being asked to work a lot more, with a lot more stress, for less money and fewer resources (in both the schools and local communities).  Teachers must also give up any hope of job security. Why? So that private companies can get a free lunch on our dime and maybe if we beg loudly enough hire us at a non-living wage.

    What can be done?

There are a couple of things that can be done. One: Refuse to have your children take the test! Teachers cannot be evaluated on test scores if there are no scores in the first place. Two: stop allowing our elected officials to keep handing out our tax dollars in order to give tax breaks to corporations for the promise of mediocre jobs with little job security. Jobs are only good if they pay a livable wage and create a strong enough tax base to support the services and infrastructure that we have come to call: Society. 

 

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