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The public school funding crisis is part of a bigger plan to suck all sense of community out of the country

Two books, one by an economist at the LBJ School in Austin, give chapter and verse on the takeover of America by an oligarchy of atavistic Ayn-Rand-quoting ultra-rich-ocrats.
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So we can hear the wolves howling in the forest now. They begin to circle.

The deliberate devastation by Rick Perry Republicans of public school funding in Texas is probably going to spell the end of the magnet school system and bring horrendous classroom overcrowding to Dallas public schools, along with massive flight from public schools in the fast-growing affluent suburbs.

None of it is an accident. All of it was foreseen and predicted five years ago with uncanny accuracy.

But the assault about to destroy the public school system is only part of the story. We are in the midst of a radical transformation of our entire society, rapidly making America a Second World nation.

Taking data from the CIA World Factbook, the U.S. Department of Labor and a variety of respected mainstream international sources, columnist Charles Blow compiled a sobering graphic, published in The New York Times February 18, demonstrating that the United States, in a list of 33 advanced economies, is now:

•Almost last, exceeded only by Singapore and Hong Kong, in "income disparity"—the gap between rich and middle class.

•Sharing last place with South Korea for "food insecurity"—the percentage of people answering yes when asked if there has been a time in the last 12 months when they couldn't afford to buy food for their families.

•In deep last place in terms of the number of citizens in prison per 100,000 population, with more than twice the ratio of the runner-up, Israel, and 12 times the number in Japan.

Sarah Palin wants everybody to know how "exceptional" America is. Maybe we should keep it under our hats.

Two compelling books have been published in the last three years about these terrible trends—the first, The Predator State, by James K. Galbraith, an economist at the LBJ School of Public Affairs in Austin; the second, Winner-Take-All Politics, by Jacob S. Hacker, a political scientist at Yale, and Paul Pierson, a political scientist at University of California-Berkeley.

Both books paint pictures of a creeping political and economic devastation underway since the 1970s, chewing at the very fabric of post-World War II American democratic prosperity. Both books persuasively debunk the notion that the cause has been in any way natural, accidental or irresistibly market-driven.

The authors chart specific turning points in this process and name names of the people who made it happen. Hacker and Pierson paint them as corporate and financial buccaneers who figured out somewhere between Nixon and Clinton that Democrats in Congress are every bit as feckless and corruptible as Republicans.

Galbraith, the son of John Kenneth Galbraith, describes these new robber barons as predators with "no intrinsic loyalty to any country"—sworn enemies, in fact, of the very concept of community.

"As an ideological matter," he writes, "it is fair to say that the very concept of public purpose is alien to, and denied by, the leaders and the operatives of this coalition."

Both books show how the new predator class has used lobbying power in Washington and the state capitols to divert immense income to their own purses—not only through tax policy but also in the all-important areas of business and financial regulation and union-busting.

Why would we Americans have allowed this to happen? One theory is that we have allowed them to turn us against ourselves. We see the Tea Party, financed by oligarchs like the Koch brothers, choreographed by operatives like Dick Armey, in which pathetic, ordinary, white middle-class Americans have been convinced that their enemy is black socialism.

We see the saga unfolding in Wisconsin, in which private-sector workers, out of work and no longer protected by unions, are persuaded that their enemies are public-sector workers, still working and still in unions.

But one might wonder if the oligarchs even need to divide us in order to conquer. Another new book, The Net Delusion, by Evgeny Morozov, tells a story about research carried out in East Germany after the collapse of the wall. It may be instructive.

The portions of East Germany where people were able to watch two popular American TV series, Dallas and Dynasty, were far more comfortable with communism and the East German regime before the wall came down than more remote areas impenetrable to West German TV signals. Turns out TV was the opiate of the masses, not religion.

Someone might think that's all we Americans need—some good shows, a six-pack, little bit of weed and a La-Z-Boy. I choose to believe that is untrue and that we do care deeply, about our families and about our country.

Yet the warnings of this crisis about to engulf us in our own public school system in Dallas were so uncannily specific. Five years ago when Texas Governor Rick Perry led the way to gut property tax support for schools, then-State Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn warned the legislature it was writing "the largest hot check in Texas history."

 

Strayhorn looked at the amount the Republicans were chopping from property taxes. Then she looked at the amount by which proposed new business taxes were clearly inadequate. She predicted the total state budget shortfall would be $23 billion in five years.

This is five years. The deficit is $27 billion.

Perry managed to paper it over for two years by engaging in ludicrous hypocrisy over the Obama stimulus funds—refusing to dirty his right hand with the money while he palmed the money in the other hand to stave off the inevitable.

The 2010-2011 Dallas school budget is slated at $1.2 billion. But because the state is at least $27 billion in the hole, it won't come close to meeting the existing formula for state aid to local districts. As a result, the Dallas district faces a shortfall in its own budget of at least $168 million and maybe as much as $253 million, or 21 percent of its total budget.

At a February 10 briefing, the school board was presented with options including firing 3,100 teachers from a total of 10,704 now employed, the sacking of 800 other support personnel and deep cuts in contracted services and supplies. Superintendent Michael Hinojosa told the board to be prepared for school closings in 2013, especially of "small schools," which some are taking as code for the entire magnet school system.

Not that the big urban school districts are being singled out. Right now the state plans not to pay districts any new money for new students. Every new student will be a hole in a district's pocket—a savage penalty for growth.

I tried to spend some time last week talking to thoughtful people about education reform—State Senator Florence Shapiro, chair of the education committee, Sandy Kress, a fellow at the Bush Institute, and several activist parents here in the Dallas school system.

Most of them were a little reluctant to be drawn into a big conversation about reform at this moment. I felt like I was strolling the deck of the Titanic on that fateful night, trying to engage people in a chat about possible improvements to navigation—a good way to earn yourself a knuckle sandwich.

There does seem to be broad bipartisan agreement that public education money is spent stupidly and counter-productively under the existing system and culture. Shapiro said the system pays money based almost entirely on attendance—the child's physical presence in a seat—not on mastery or learning. She quoted author Michael Horn, who has said that the current system is set up to "measure and reward the wrong end of the student."

On that score Shapiro, a conservative Republican from Plano, finds herself agreeing with Arne Duncan, Obama's education secretary. "Education is more about the child than it is about a Republican or Democrat perspective," she said.

In Dallas, there are awe-inspiring examples of efforts by parents to fix schools at a grassroots level. But here's the thing. Take, for example, Woodrow Wilson High School in East Dallas, where parents have joined to support an innovative principal in creating the city's first public International Baccalaureate program. If teacher cutbacks this year are anywhere near the levels under discussion right now at school headquarters, that program too will be annihilated.

In a way, discussion of reform is its own kind of blind alley or trick right now—like talking about the need for more civility when you're under aerial bombardment. This is an engineered crisis—a thing that was done on purpose by people who do not mean well for our community, our city, our state or nation.

This country is being subverted by a cabal of ultra-rich-ocrats. They will not be satisfied until they have extinguished all of the democratic communal principles and traditions that made America great.

The lie we are told is that it is "class-resentment" and therefore morally wrong even to point to what has happened already, let alone what looms ahead. Guess what. It's class resentment and morally right. Right as hell.

There's a great story in the February 21 edition of The Nation about a growing Tea-Party-like movement in the United Kingdom. But this one, instead of a ruse to immobilize the middle class by stirring racial animosity and fear, is aimed right at the bull's eye.

"Enraged citizens gather in every city, week after week—to demand the government finally regulate the behavior of corporations and the super-rich, and force them to start paying taxes," the article reports. "The protesters shut down the shops and offices of the companies that have most aggressively ripped off the country.

"The swelling movement is made up of everyone from teenagers to pensioners. They surround branches of the banks that caused this crash and force them to close, with banners saying, 'You caused this crisis. Now YOU pay.'"

 

We Americans are going to have to rise up from our La-Z-Boys and take to the cobblestones. The cobblestones are where we come from, after all. We won't have to burn anything to put the fear of God in the predators. Just show them our torches.


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