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Teachers ask: Where did all the Money Go?

Next fall the school where I taught for 18 years is laying off two of its four administrators, and the Spanish teacher as well. Schools are losing nurses, custodians, and librarians were lost years ago. My district, Oakland Unified is being forced to cut more than $80 million from next year's budget.

Each of us who works in the schools has a different story, but I bet there are few out there who will not be directly affected by the current and coming budget crisis in our schools. We are told the funds just aren't there, but where did all the money go?

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sounded the alarm last week, warning that next fall 100,000 to 300,000 teachers could be laid off, with class sizes increasing and educational quality sinking as a result. Senator Tom Harkin has introduced a bill that would provide $23 billion in emergency funding to fill the gaps in state budgets that are forcing these layoffs.

Some people think we should just buckle down and get used to it. The prosperous-looking Michael J. Petrilli of the Thomas Fordham Institute told NBC news: "Not only do our schools have to go on a diet, they need to adapt a whole new way of life. Because this money is gone, and it's not comin' back any time soon."

He has a point. During the boom years of the past decade, schools were adequately, though still not equitably funded. Now that the economy has contracted, tax revenues have declined, and schools are starving.

So the money is gone. But it has not vanished into thin air. The money is going somewhere.

At the Federal level there are two major issues that affect the availability of tax revenue. The first is the massive Bush tax cuts, which were supposed to guarantee permanent prosperity. Instead, the lion's share of savings has gone to the top 1%, leaving the middle class to shoulder the cost of government services.

We have a bad economy, we are told, as if this is like a storm passing over, a series of events beyond human control -- perhaps even our humble comprehension.

In the US, the recent data (from the Economist magazine) on the economic recovery indicates that while national income has increased by $200 billion in the past year, corporate profits have increased by $280 billion, while wages are down by $90 billion.

But Goldman Sachs just handed out $3 billion more in bonuses -- just this quarter! On top of $18 billion in bonuses given to employees last year! There are now about three million public school teachers in the US. These bonuses divided among all teachers would equal more than $6000 per teacher. There are about 100,000 public k-12 schools in the nation. That is $210,000 for every single school. This money has not vanished. It has been shifted. Corporations now pay less in taxes than ever. Last year Exxon-Mobil, which made more than $45 billion in profits, paid ZERO in federal taxes.

In many states, tax policies have shifted more and more of the burden onto the middle class. For example, in California, Proposition 13 freezes property taxes at 1978 rates until the property changes hands. This has benefited corporate landholders far more because they rarely sell their land, while ordinary homeowners usually sell every five to ten years. Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected on a pledge that he would lower car registration fees, which he did - costing the state billions in revenue. And Republican legislators refuse to increase revenues, even through common-sense methods like a levy on oil extracted in the state.

The second big money pit is military spending, much of which is funding wasteful and destructive wars. The US now spends close to $700 billion on its military, more than the next dozen countries combined.

As teachers, we constantly remind ourselves that our primary duty is to the well-being of our students. But I also recall the way our fellow professionals, nurses, are willing to go on strike to ensure a reasonable nurse to patient ratio, to ensure their patients get quality care. As teachers we must be prepared to do the same.

I will be joining my Oakland colleagues on the picket line this Thursday when we stage a one-day strike for a better contract than the one the District imposed on us last week. Our new superintendent, Dr. Tony Smith, has pledged to find new revenues to increase teacher pay over time. But the state cuts have put us in a very bad spot.

I am unwilling to accept, as Michael J. Pirelli urges, that the money to support our schools has permanently vanished, shifted into the bank accounts of the wealthy forever more, or that our military should receive more than half of federal funds. We decide how the wealth of our nation is spent, and our spending should reflect our priorities. If the future of our nation is our children, how can we simply throw up our hands and accept this slow-motion disaster of our own making?

What do you think? Should we adapt to the new reality? Or should we re-shape it?

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