Thursday, May 26, 2005

Dismantling public education, devaluing information labor

More hometown news about two particular meanings of "information labor" which we normally overlook but which have profound importance to every locality around the US. If we truly are moving into a new global "informational" economy (a change from, but not a total elimination of, previous "agricultural" and "industrial" modes of development, says analyst Manuel Castells) then preparing the information workers of the future is a crucial task which must be handled by certain information workers of today -- we call them teachers, librarians, educational administrators and specialists. But often we forget these individuals and their labors, focusing instead and exclusively on the many information technologies of education alone: books, computers, and even buildings.

Even in a town like Madison which is known nationwide for top schools, a diverse student body, and supposedly "liberal" values in support of public education, it turned out after a city referendum vote on Tuesday that voters are unwilling to make increases in operating budgets that pay teacher salaries, but they are willing to maintain previous increases in capital budgets that go to preserving spaces and technologies. According to one of our local newspapers, the consequences will be quick and dramatic: "At noon Thursday, the Madison School Board will meet to approve the roughly 20 layoffs, depending on attrition, that come with eliminating more than 100 positions, Superintendent Art Rainwater said this morning." (cite:

Dismally, these are democratic decisions that are only made by roughly a quarter of the voting age population. As of 2004, Madison's voting-age population (estimated) was 178,904 out of a total of 217,935 persons (cite: [ But in the 2005 school referendum, it looks like roughly 43,000 persons voted, which would be a voter turnout of about 24%. This level was apparently "about equal to the turnout in 2003 when the last stand-alone school referendum was held." (cite:

I would guess that two major interest groups are voting here: elderly residents on fixed incomes facing rising property values and thus rising property taxes (a severe situation in Madison through the 1990s, with double-digit home price increases vexing both both longtime homeowners and potential first-time homebuyers) and young families with children now in school (and there for a long time to come) who also face high housing costs but are willing to sacrifice for these housing costs in order to remain in top school districts. Many of these families are employed by the state, either through government administration or our local university, where wage increases have remained flat since the turn of the millennium (while health care expenses and other costs have risen dramatically).

We can make arguments (which I personally believe) that keeping a top school system actually benefits everyone, even those not represented in the two interest groups above, by keeping Madison's economy strong and reducing need for other social services in the short term, and by preparing capable, productive citizens in the long term. Plus there's the simple fairness argument that those whose lives benefited from public schools in the past have a responsibility to support the public schools of today.

But this matters little to those with the greatest tax burden who perceive that through their lives they have already paid to educate generations of their peers. For them, funding schools through property taxes is regressive in two ways: it penalizes one for long-term ownership of any residential property (a supposedly dearly-held norm in our society, though perhaps never as common as our nostalgia would hope), and it penalizes those who remain in their residence when that residence is revalued through gentrification, especially when incomes stagnate or decline.

So at an individual level we would need a way to protect these vulnerable populations by either grading school tax based on longevity of homeownership or linking school tax not to property value but to income. But we should recognize that since these different interest groups -- wealthy without children, elderly fixed-income, young parents with children at any income level -- all are sorted into particular geographies because of the uneven and exclusionary patchwork of property types and property values, we will never be able to simply tweak the tax burden at an individual level to assure that each school receives a fair funding level, and that each household bears a fair funding burden. Instead, at an aggregate level we need to move funding limits away from local neighborhoods, districts, counties, and even states, and be willing to aggregate wealth for social distribution in order to improve the educational chances of the least advantaged. The time to push progressive solutions to the entire range of school-funding formulas, at all scales of governance, is long past. Madison has been insulated from this debate by luck of geography, affluence, and symbolic educational strength. But no longer.

Unfortunately, the short-term reaction to this crisis of failing to fund information labor over information technology may be not a call to find a more progressive way to fund public schools, but a regressive and neoliberal response to move toward privatization of public schools. Already conservative "tax revolt" interest groups which formed during the 2003 Madison school funding referendum election have flexed their muscle in 2005, pushing the idea that government is out of control, wasteful, out of touch, elitist -- all of the garden-variety slurs used to delegitimize the collective provision of public goods that have been used in a wide range of economic conservative projects through the 1980s and 1990s, from the dismantling of environmental regulation to the destruction of the social safety net for workers. One Madison school board member apparently argued after Tuesday's election (paraphrased by the local papers here), "it's time to consider 'everything,' which, more specifically, he listed as 'closing some schools,' raising student fees and soliciting advertising to pay for all kinds of popular programs, from athletics to music." (cite: In this, as in many other crises of both government budgets and constituent priorities today, if social justice activists don't offer solutions, social privatization advocates will.

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