Making Education a Priority

Today, students and teachers throughout Chicago will be joined by other union members and workers for a one day strike over austerity and cuts to education. The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) has set a strong example over the past five years of how to stand up to those in power who show no regard for communities of color or low-income students. The CTU has educated the public about the attack on open-enrollment schools and qualified teachers including its connections to poverty, racism and mass incarceration. They have built a strong base of community support and have been willing to take direct action when necessary.

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Baltimore and other areas of Maryland are suffering from similar attacks on public education such as the growth of charter schools, underfunding and closing of public schools, a rising number of teachers that are fast-tracked through private training programs such as Teach for America and the constant fight to protect teacher salaries and benefits. All of this is leading to a race to the bottom for public education in Maryland.

Baltimore and Prince Georges County, in particular, struggle with the added challenges of poverty and racism. Stationing police in schools adds to the problem. School police are called upon to discipline students even in minor situations like dress code violations that used to be handled by school administrators. A report published in Think Progress found that students in Baltimore are more likely to be arrested for these violations (80%) compared to the rest of the state (51%) and that arrest doubles the risk of drop-out. Going to court quadruples the risk. This creates a negative cycle for students that can adversely impact the rest of their lives.

There are alternative ways to create discipline in schools that improve the health of students and teach interpersonal skills that can have a positive lifelong impact. One step is to improve the quality of food served in schools so that it is healthier, organic and less processed. This has been shown to improve behavior and academic performance. Another step is to use positive school discipline that includes counseling, conflict resolution and mediation. There are common sense ways to create school environments that are respectful of the dignity of both students and faculty.

The attack on public schools is both ideological and intentional. Education as an institution is one of the most recent to be plundered by private corporations for profit. If this is allowed to go unchecked, the future of education is dim. Public education should be considered a right, pre-Kindergarten through college or post-high school vocational education, so that all students have equal access to the high quality education they need to be successful.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which was passed in Congress last December, paves the way to a future where teaching is standardized and done by computers. Fewer teachers will be needed because they will merely become classroom facilitators. Teachers will receive less professional training in how to educate, because that will no longer be their function. This guarantees more private profits for companies that provide computers, software and training. More of our public dollars will be funneled to these companies without proof that our children will receive a better quality of education. In fact the model of ‘competency-based education’ promoted by ESSA results in greater stratification of education and opportunities.

The attack on education seems to be intentional because of the lack of resources invested in it. At the federal level, funding for education is only 2% of the total budget or $85 billion. This is about equal to what was spent each month to bail out Wall Street through Quantitative Easing after the 2008 crash. When we are told that the money isn’t there to provide a high quality education, this just isn’t true. It comes down to a matter of priorities.

As your senator, I will fight to secure more funding to strengthen our public education, provide teachers with the quality professional education and resources they need to help their students achieve their potential and halt the commodification of education. I stand in solidarity with the Chicago Teachers Union and with students and teachers everywhere in the struggle to realize the human right to education.

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