The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

United States:
Public Schools—COVID Reveals the Disaster

Oct 17, 2021

The following two articles were transcripts of speeches given to The SPARK Forum, held in Detroit in October, 2021. Focused around problems of education at the time of Covid, and public education more generally, these presentations were made by two candidates who ran on the Working Class Party list in election years 2018 and 2020. The first speaker was Andrea L. Kirby, who spoke, in part, from her perspective as a parent and, in part, as an active trade unionist. The second speaker was Mary Anne Hering, a long-time teacher in community colleges in the Detroit area.

I. Schools at the Time of COVID

Almost two years ago, our lives changed forever. We have been living our lives on a roller coaster. We have been subjected to all types of emotions, mental highs and lows and tons of uncertainty. The feeling of burnout is becoming all too common. It is not just doctors and nurses but average everyday workers. Doesn’t matter if you work from home or go into the office or factory, people are tired of going 100 mph for so long. The pandemic has been hard enough as an adult but imagine life over the past two years as a child or young adult. COVID-19 and its variant cousins have highlighted the social, economic, and racial disparities not only in this country but all over the world. It has driven a deeper divide between the rich and poor. And our children, nieces, nephews, cousins … our future, are the ones most affected by devastation and mismanagement of this pandemic.

But trust and believe, it was not COVID-19 that caused the failing school system that we have before us today. The system was built that way. It was not built to take care of all of our youth. The system was made to where the rich received better everything versus poorer areas. The system was not made to care for all the people within it. It was made to make money for a few on the backs of people. The working class people.

Education has been no different. The system in which we live was not created to provide a formal education for all people. You will hear more about that later. But the capitalist system allows for education to be profitable for some, not progressive and beneficial for all.

Each community must figure out ways to pay for the education of the children in that area. The education of our children is tied directly to the performances of the business in that area. So we all know that businesses do not invest in poorer communities. Rural communities do not have a lot of people around, and these communities have fewer businesses, therefore less money to give to the schools. This is the same in Black and Brown communities.

So, when big business destroys a community with lead poisoning or an oil spill or maybe they just shut down a huge plant, the children are directly impacted because the tax base is gone and so is the money for the schools. The businesses can afford to leave but the children are left to pay the price in more ways than one.

Oh yeah, then there is the lottery. Presented to the population as additional resources generated to give to the schools. This was one of the greatest marketing jobs of our time. Fact is, "Since 1972, the Michigan Lottery has transferred an average of 410 million dollars to the School Aid Fund annually. But when compared with other contributions to the School Aid Fund such as state sales tax (42.5 %), income tax earmarking (17.7%), and state property tax (16.7%), lottery proceeds of (6.6%) are small," (CAPCON June 18, 2012).

But the deception started long before this 2012 report. Back in 2007, the lottery was reported to have increased profits four out of the previous five years. The money went to the schools but in turn money slated for education was funneled out from other areas. "The state general fund’s contribution to education, which totaled $377.8 million in the 2003—04 fiscal year, has been reduced by more than tenfold over the past four years to $35 million a year," ( 9/2/07). So what has been advertised as additional funds for schools, lawmakers simply used as an opportunity to gut money from the general funds to use for everything but our children and their education.

Years of stripping and reallocating. Closures of public schools and the opening of new charter schools. And then COVID hit. All of the junk they were trying to hide began to surface. The poor infrastructure of many of the school buildings was exposed. The lack of qualified educators, bus drivers, kitchen staff and space have all been put in the spotlight.

Our young people have had their worlds turned upside down. We all remember how the 2020—21 school year was. Children were abruptly tossed out of school, no warning, no plan. Every day they were subjected to media reports showing death and fear surrounding COVID. Many were stuck home learning in an environment they were not ready, able or wanting to be in. Parents were forced to become teachers. The school year fizzled out like a bad 4th of July sparkler. Everyone wanted the school year to end, hoping that 2021—22 was going to be better.

Well sorry, it is not starting off any better. So, what have politicians in Lansing and Washington, D.C. and all over this country learned over almost two years, you ask? Not much. The only thing they seem to be consistent about is: not another shutdown. Not another halt to the capitalist machine that keeps the rich, rich. They no longer have any regard to the cases or the number of deaths now that the vaccine is here.

But there are some alarming statistics that were published in a September 2021 edition of the New York Times Magazine that I would like to share to give a little perspective of what is happening with our young people.

  • 25 million students were physically out of school for 13 months starting in March 2020.
  • There has been a 24% increase in mental health-related emergency room visits for 5 to 11 year olds from April to October 2020, compared with the same time in 2019.
  • There has been a 39.1% increase in emergency room trips for suicide attempts by 12 to 17 year olds in winter 2021, compared to 2019.
  • One to three million students were “lost” by schools in the last year. They never enrolled, showed up or logged on.
  • The share of low income students who were in remote schools at the end of 2020 was 64% compared to 48% for high income students.

We all know that children have suffered cognitive, social and academic setbacks over the past 18 months. You don’t have to be a parent to see it. Now we know that the COVID-19 pandemic was an unprepared shock that schools and government had not planned for. But what is not an unprepared shock is the blatant gutting and neglect they have been doing to our schools for years. A recent Detroit News article stated that even before the pandemic started, “In a normal year, less than half of Michigan kids test proficient in any subject.” So our children have been falling behind all before COVID put it in the spotlight.

But wait. Michigan lawmakers are trying to make it right, so they say. Since the pandemic has shown all of the flaws in their system, they are doing anything they can to distract from the years of neglect of our children and the public school system. One way was by recently passing a 17-billion-dollar spending plan that is supposed to close the school funding gaps. It sounds so nice rolling off the tongue, 17 billion to the schools. To put it in perspective, the current year’s school budget is 15.5 billion and it was just passed to increase it to 17.1 billion. In other words, the 1.5 billion dollar increase is a drop in the bucket compared to the amounts of money that have been stripped from the schools already. This plan by lawmakers does not begin to provide the enormous amounts of money needed to provide a quality education for all children.

So great, the new budget plan supposedly has each child valued the same regardless of where you live at $8,700 per head. But we are not all the same. For years, schools in the poorer neighborhoods have been stripped of money, programs, and school closures have increased compared to the richer school districts. Because they say “equal funding” on paper doesn’t mean that our children will receive an equal education.

For 18 months, that was all they were able to accomplish. They didn’t come up with a plan to help make up for the educational loss our children have suffered. They didn’t think of ways to help all of our children return to school safely. Oh wait, this wasn’t a concern in some school districts. Some areas had the money to hire additional teachers, so there were three of them in one classroom. Also, their class sizes were reduced to 9 students. Bathroom breaks were conducted every two hours. Playgrounds were divided into section by classrooms. And many classes were held outside. Educators knew what was needed, and it all started with money. Areas with money were able to provide ways to protect their children and have them safely return to schools.

Now that school is back, pedal to the metal. We are seeing infection rates among our youth increase. We are seeing the numbers go up from kindergarten to the universities. A football team can’t play due to large numbers of players out with COVID, the same goes for the band. Twenty-five children from my daughter’s band were either out with COVID or in quarantine during one of their football games a few weeks ago. There are so many examples of our large chunks of our kids being quarantined throughout the state. The only answer they have for us is to get vaccinated.

This is a perfect opportunity for my public service announcement. The vaccine is not a cure. Getting the vaccine does not mean you will not get COVID or any of its cousins. Nor does it mean you cannot transmit it to others. Having the vaccine also doesn’t mean you cannot die. I feel like I am explaining this to so many of my friends, family and coworkers only because this is not the same message they are getting from the media. And not what is being shared with our young ones or their parents. But what the vaccine is, is the best line of defense we currently have against this deadly virus. But by itself it is not enough.

So besides the vaccine, what have they learned in almost two years? If we look at what they are currently proposing, it doesn’t seem like they learned much. School districts are looking for direction and what they are being told goes against everything we were told to do for 18 months. Before school started back parents began receiving information about how the new school year was going to look and it was not what we expected. One of the most significant changes was what was deemed a safe distance or the social distancing requirements. Since the pandemic began, we have been told six feet is a safe distance to be away from someone. This is still the same at my job, the same in the stores when you look at the signage. But not the same in schools. For them the requirement of safe distance is only three feet. The rule was changed in order to get children back in school, so their mothers could go back to work. The recommendations surrounding the vaccinated are so convoluted you need Cliff Notes. Here is the breakdown of one of the recommendations being used by several school districts.

  • If you are vaxed, and come in contact with a COVID-positive person and have no symptoms, you are good to go. Just wear a mask.
  • If you are not vaxed and come in contact with a COVID-positive person and you both were wearing a mask and at least three feet apart, then you too are good to go. Just wear a mask.
  • This is the kicker! If you are not vaxed and exposed to a COVID positive person and you both were wearing masks but LESS that three feet apart, then you can still stay in school, but are subjected to daily testing. If you don’t want the testing, then you are quarantined for seven days.

Now on top of all of that, imagine if you lived in a district that doesn’t require mask wearing. Not to mention that there is not yet a vaccine available for ages 11 and under. It was only recently OK’d for ages 12—15.

Recently, a local school system (Hazel Park) announced the “Test to Stay” program where they will take over the testing for unvaccinated, exposed students to COVID instead of requiring them to stay at home. The student only has to be subjected to daily testing for seven days and test negative in order to go to school. And the vaccinated students are not off the hook—if they are exposed, they have to be tested on days 3, 4, and 5 after exposure, in order to stay in school.

I don’t know who created this plan but it is cruel for children to have to endure such complicated procedures in order to get an education.

It is crystal clear that those that are making the decisions for The People do not care about the lives of The People. Their thought process starts and ends with a dollar sign. We are not human beings with lives, we are per-pupil amounts. We are expendable to them. This behavior is not limited to the schools and decisions about our youth. This is the way decisions are being made for US every day in every way. Money over lives.

I don’t know about you, but I am tired of our lives being played around with for the sake of a dollar. I am tired of fighting the same fights that our ancestors fought and died over. I am tired of agreeing that WE are being wronged and not standing up to change it. Tired of being flipped back and forth between two evils without a voice at the table. We cannot ignore the big picture after we begin to see through all of the lies and deceit.

I want to leave you with this quote that I read recently in a popular newspaper that happens to be located on that back table [The SPARK].

"If the point of a capitalist economy is for workers to sacrifice even more to make a few people even richer, then who needs it?"

I don’t.

Thank you very much for your time and always remember, WE are the forces that make this society run, and we can shut the bosses’ society down and build something for us, the Working Class.

II. Public Education: A Gain Won by Working People

Yes, education in this class society is unequal. But that is nothing new. We have only to look at its history in this country.

For all practical purposes, for the first couple of hundred years, children of working people, urban and rural, so-called “free” as well as slave, received little or no education. Even then, in the early years of the U.S., schooling was haphazard. Children who did receive instruction, in the Northeast, were educated through a hodgepodge of arrangements: boarding schools or private tutoring for children of the wealthy. To the extent there were schools for most children, they were run by churches, known as pauper schools. These schools did not focus on basic skills like math. And whatever reading they taught focused on the virtues of family and religion.

In colonial America, the closest school to a kind of public education—paid for with public money—was first and foremost a means to educate an elite class of future political and business leaders. Shortly after the American Revolution, people like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, the more far-sighted political representatives of the American bourgeoisie, were among those who led the drive to establish such schools—for their class.

These schools, secular in nature, freed from religious control, were not yet a system of public education, paid for by the state, and open to everyone. They were for the ruling class. For public schools to come into being required a movement of the laboring classes—in fact, several different movements.

People may have heard about reformers like Horace Mann, considered to be the father of what came to be called “Common Schools.” In the 1830s, he advocated for the creation of public schools that would be universally available to all children, free of charge and funded by the state. And while it may be true there were such reformers, like Mann, whose push for public education drew attention, what really changed for the children of the laboring population came from major social movements where working people pushed from the bottom to get their kids educated. They brought into existence what we know as public schools.

In the Northeast, this struggle came from an important layer of the newly emerging working class, particularly workers with certain skills, like shipwrights, machinists, and tool-makers. In the South, a few decades later, it came from the organizing by former slaves, in some cases, aligned with poor white laborers, after the Civil War, during the period of Reconstruction. Later, in large rural areas of the Midwest and South, it came out of the movement of poor farmers.

So let’s look first at the Northeast. The 1800s brought the rise and development of production and of factories. It was the big industrial growth of capitalism and it meant, at the same time, the growth of a working class. Along with this growth of the working class, over time came the development of working class parties. Eventually such parties were organized in more than 60 cities, where skilled workers and other working people were an important part of the population.

These workingmen’s parties demanded a ten-hour day and the abolition of imprisonment for debt, and an end to child labor, but the most prevalent demand was for universal education. They wanted it paid for by the state, with mandatory attendance, and they wanted an end to child labor, that practice that saw children as young as five or six pulled into industries.

Schools came into existence relatively quickly. By 1860, all of the Northeastern states had tax-supported school systems for children, at least for five or six years. According to official estimates, by 1860, every white inhabitant in this area had received, in public or private schools, on the average, more than five times as many days of schooling as such inhabitants received in 1800. For black children in the Northeast, the record was much less positive. Slavery was not yet abolished in New York until 1828. In New Jersey, it didn’t end until the beginning of the Civil War. And the fact of slavery, even if not widespread in the North by this time, impacted what was available not only to slaves, but to the “free” black population. A whole series of laws were passed—including how to collect taxes for schools—requiring communities to make provision for some kind of education; the abolition of tuition fees, and pauper schools, and the abolition of grants to schools maintained by churches. And while the parties which raised these demands did not have a long life, their activity was what brought public schools as we understand them today into being.

Public education in the South was delayed until after the Civil War. Before that, there was no system of education, other than for the privileged sons of the slave holders. Rich families also paid private tutors. It was legally prohibited to teach a slave to read, and, while there was no law against teaching poor white children, there also were no schools.

The social changes that came about after the Civil War were a direct result of the fight of slaves leading up to and during the war, as well as during the period of Reconstruction. One of the first actions taken after the Civil War by almost all the Reconstruction governments set up by ex-slaves was to establish public schools open to all, funded directly by the state governments, with aid from the federal government.

In some areas, it was only former slaves, and in others, it was former slaves who pulled after them some poor whites. Often they physically built their own schools. And they had to find teachers—who, for the most part, were not to be found in the South. Former slaves had not been taught even to read, nor had most poor whites. Teachers were sometimes found in abolitionist milieus in the North. A few teachers were former slaves in the South who had gained an education.

By the 1870s, over half the children, black and white, were attending the 1,000 public schools that opened up in the South.

Briefly, this is why we have public education. Working people, North and South, created the schooling.

So why did the ruling class of this country accept it? At first, they didn’t. For a long time they fought against it, both in the North and in the South.

But eventually in the North, for the development of industry, capitalism needed workers with at least the rudiments of an education: the ability to read, to write, to do basic math. Large workshops required written instructions and more bookkeeping. And if you were going to produce complicated and precise steam engines and agricultural machines and army weapons with interchangeable parts, then you needed a lot of workers who could read rulers, dials, pressure gauges, calipers, blueprints, and calculate tolerances to the thousandth of an inch, all the more so as mass production developed. There was work that required a certain level of education. So the capitalist class needed a certain part of the working class to be at least minimally educated. But when the states of the capitalist class in the North implemented public education, they did it in ways that served bourgeois class interests. These schools taught limited subjects, necessary for basic industry—a narrow, technical education only.

In the South, most of which remained agricultural, based on the old organization of plantations, the farm work was carried out under a system of sharecropping. The ruling class didn’t need even a minimally educated labor force. They didn’t want it. Barely a decade after the end of the Civil War, the ruling class in the South used the physical violence of gangs, coming from the former Southern army, to put an end to much of the gains carried out during Reconstruction, including the schools. These gangs violently attacked the black population and those poor whites who had aligned with them. The population of former slaves and poor whites were driven back to sharecropping. Very few schools survived. The laboring population in the South remained illiterate.

The attempt to break out of that, to establish schools in rural areas of the country—in the farming Midwest, and in the sharecropping South, was carried out by the next movement: poor farmers, North and South, known as the Populist movement. This movement, before World War I, led to the establishment of schools in large rural areas, North and South. The Populist movement, which at the beginning, engaged black and white sharecroppers, ran up against a renewal of the Ku Klux Klan. In this period Jim Crow laws were established, a legal statement that Black children were inferior, the justification for denying them education, or, over time, only the worst education.

Finally, starting in World War II, a new movement erupted, as massive as the one that legally ended slavery, a movement to break down Jim Crow laws. In the South, it was the massive fight of the population active in what became known as the Civil Rights movement that pushed for equal access to a decent education, no matter what other forms it took. Starting in World War II and lasting up into the 1960s, this movement turned around the question of schools as one of its key issues. We always hear about the landmark ruling of the Supreme Court, Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954—supposedly the piece of paper that legally struck down the “separate but equal” doctrine for segregated schools that the courts had defended since the 1890s. But it was the massive fight of these mobilizations for equal access to a decent education that forced the courts to act, by directly changing the school system themselves.

When the courts finally ruled, it was an attempt to funnel the movement back into a narrow focus. This movement was spreading beyond the limits the bourgeoisie was comfortable with.

The Black population massively organized threatened the whole of capitalist class society when cities throughout this country erupted in urban rebellions, taking on the deep-seated racism that relegated the black population to second class citizenship. Some of the results of the urban revolts were the spread of decent-paying jobs to the black population, but also to more white workers, as well as better working conditions, provisions of health care and better housing. These struggles got rid of the infamous racial covenants that dictated where black people could and could not live. That is, in the North, with schools organized according to the wealth of a community, it dictated what kind of schools your children could attend.

To the extent that public schooling began for the children of the working class and poor, it was popular movements that made it possible. To the extent that public education expanded, including finally by setting up community colleges, these gains benefitted the children of the working class, black and white. But these movements were carried out within the framework of capitalism. And as long as the fights of the laboring population stayed trapped within this framework, this guaranteed that the gains were going to be limited and even eroded, even if they have not been completely taken away. Today the Coronavirus has had a horrible impact on what is happening in the schools. But in the schools attended by the children of working people, schools were already in the ICU, strangled of funds, and restricted to teaching to the test.

In the past, the fight for public education, for civil rights, for jobs, for human dignity that I have talked about tonight practically took revolutions on the part of the working class and poor just to gain what should be basic democratic rights extended without question to everyone.

If it takes a revolution to gain these things, we need to draw the obvious conclusion: the next time, when working people take to the streets for an immediate goal, it’s important to realize that in order to get basic reforms, such as improvement of the schools, it will require another revolution, and this time that revolution needs to go all the way, that is to getting rid of this class system.

The conscious fight of the working class can lead to a society that guarantees a future for our children and grandchildren. And that can open up a whole new world—for all children to have access to literature, science, history, art, music, dance, theater, languages, travel, sports, mechanics, you name it, so that all children can develop to their fullest potential. To get there, we need a society in which the free development of each is the condition of the free development of all.