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Sacramento City Unified School District plans to close 11 elementary schools, primarily in low income neighborhoods around South Sacramento and the downtown area, the WSWS reports. With only 50 public elementary schools in the city, this amounts to closing one-fifth of the city’s elementary schools.
The district’s rationale for closing the schools is that they are “underutilized,” operating at 40% of capacity. However, as the WSWS correctly notes, this is based on the backward logic that their classrooms aren’t crowded enough [to justify funding them]. The 40% figure is based on a maximum class size of 32 students (even for grades K-2), which is up from 20 students per teacher last year and 16 per teacher in 2000. It is also based on the district’s fear of another budget shortfall, projected to be $10-12 million, despite the passage of Proposition 30, which was supposed to keep education funding steady at 2011-2012 levels. Rather than chopping from the top by laying-off administrators or cutting their bloated salaries, Sacramento (like most other school districts) has chosen to cut teachers and close schools in low income neighborhoods.
If schools were funded based on their actual needs, it would make sense to keep these schools open, even at “40%” of capacity, as this comes to just under 13 students per teacher—slightly less than the 2000 average class size of 16-to-1. The overwhelming body of evidence indicates that smaller class sizes benefit students academically. Teachers are better able to attend to the individual needs of each student, including being able to identify and support learning, emotional and behavior problems that often go unnoticed in larger classrooms. This, alone, could go a long way toward improving attendance, graduation rates and school safety. Smaller class sizes also allow teachers more time to plan, implement and assess more complex and meaningful lessons and activities (or rely less on multiple choice tests and lectures). Lower income schools also have a greater need for smaller class sizes as they tend to have higher numbers of students who are reading below grade level and in need of extra support or remediation.
By closing these schools, students will have to be bused or driven to neighborhoods far from their homes to be crammed into overcrowded classrooms where they will be more likely to slip through the cracks. But this is not the concern of Sacramento’s mayor Kevin Johnson, who built his education credentials by using Gates Foundation money to promote the conversion of public schools into charter schools, (nor his wife Michelle Rhee, who built her career by overseeing one of the largest cheating scandals in U.S. history, while mass-firing D.C. teachers, bashing teachers unions and promoting privatization), Indeed, the mayor’s long-term plans for the soon to be abandoned facilities may in fact be to sell them off to private charter companies.
The closing of these schools (and the growing class sizes) are part of the growing rationalization of public education which, until recently, had been run in a relatively inefficient and wasteful way from the perspective of capitalists. Increased class sizes support a reduction in state spending on education. Assuming that the schools continue to churn out graduates who are sufficiently educated to fill existing job openings and consume existing products, increased class sizes increase the efficiency of education (i.e., the number of workers produced per dollar spent). The desperate pleas by Obama, Bill Gates and others for a better educated workforce so we can compete with India and China are not pleas for the masses to have doctorates or expertise in programming and biotechnology. Rather, our successful competition depends on having a few who can create innovations that keep our domestic capitalists ahead of their foreign peers and a large docile, low wage workforce that churns out these innovations at the lowest wages and highest profits possible.
The past decade of budget cuts, layoffs, increased class sizes and emphasis on lectures and high stakes tests have had no noticeable effect on American industry, which has made record profits for each of the past several years and throughout most of the past decade (minus one or two years at the beginning of the recession). Despite the attacks on and gutting of the U.S. public education system, American children are graduating with sufficient skills to keep the system running, while a small minority of students (overwhelmingly coming from affluent families) continue to graduate with the skills to run the businesses and develop new technologies and innovations.