Recently I testified before the legislative committee shaping our state budget. I listened all day as, in the context of a significant tax cut, good people protested the slashing of their programs—Medicaid Expansion, mental health services, and public education funding.
So much of the testimony was designed to frighten. Advocates made the case against cutting trauma centers and oncology clinics because we value life and also fear death. Mental illness frightens us personally and we fear the violence that is occasionally associated with emotional instability. We are terrified that we might lose our jobs or be cut to part time and lose our health insurance. But it is hard to frighten people about a high school losing its orchestra, another eliminating Advanced Placement Calculus, or a school district increasing the load for counselors from 300 students to 475 or assigning school nurses to cover three schools every week. Children are resilient, we tell ourselves. They bounce back.
Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz tell us this isn’t how our society has always made choices. Compared to other nations’ education systems, public education in the U.S represented a more generous, “open and forgiving” tradition, “enabling youths to make up for deficits in their backgrounds and to escape severe penalties for their past misdeeds.” There was no test in pre-adolescence forcing American children into an academic or a vocational track. Children who did not thrive in elementary school could catch up and excel in high school, or if they dropped out, the GED added another chance. States kept college affordable by significantly underwriting the tuition, and in the mid-20th century came community colleges where even older adults could go back to school. An open and forgiving system, write Goldin and Katz, creates “mass education.”
Today in our era of persistent unemployment, widening inequality, declining social mobility, and tax and budget cutting at state and federal levels, there are a thousand ways we are making access to education less open and less forgiving—de-funding all-day kindergarten—increasing class size—threatening to double the interest rate on college loans—increasing public college tuition in 40 states, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. State spending on public colleges and universities has dropped 28 percent since 2008.
Nowhere is the pressure greater than at the community colleges that provide first and second chances. California has threatened to close City College of San Francisco, a school with 85,000 full and part-time students. The college has been pressed further to cut staff and courses to close a $6 million deficit, resulting from a $53 million state cut to the college over three years. Community colleges, strapped for money, find themselves less able to offer enough sections of required classes to ensure that students can accumulate required credits to graduate.
In Back to School, a timely book about the role of community colleges, Mike Rose wonders, “In the midst of a powerful anti-welfare-state, austerity climate, will we have the political courage to stand against the rationing of educational opportunity? The democratic philosophy I envision would affirm the ability of the common person. It would guide us to see in basic-skills instruction the rich possibility for developing literacy and numeracy and for realizing the promise of a second-chance society.”
The United Church of Christ has 5,194 churches throughout the United States. Rooted in the Christian traditions of congregational governance and covenantal relationships, each UCC setting speaks only for itself and not on behalf of every UCC congregation. UCC members and churches are free to differ on important social issues, even as the UCC remains principally committed to unity in the midst of our diversity.