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Thursday, December 3, 2020

Trump Was Right

By Bill Street

Trump was right, about one thing. The system is rigged. He rode that one statement to the Presidency in 2016 and used his office to reinforce the conditions that created his political base. 

He knew that public education was in trouble, so he appointed an Education Secretary to make it worse.

He knew that for working people the current generation was going to be worse off than the prior one. So he took actions to make it worse including a disastrous trade war, alienating crucial trade partners and stripping the infrastructure required to build back better.

He knew that if the conditions for his working-class base deteriorated his base would be secure. Because it was their fear that he needed. Their fear of hunger, their fear of homelessness, their fear of the future.

During his four years, the rich did indeed get richer (as they have been since the 1980s). Productivity gains did not result in similar pay raises (as they haven’t since the 1980s). And the path to the middle class got more difficult. Instead of graduating from high school and walking across the street to the local factory, where a family- (and commonly, a union-) wage job awaited (especially for white males) with a pension and health insurance, now the path to the middle class required higher education.

Unfortunately, unlike factory jobs, educational slots are far fewer per capita than factory jobs were, and the cost of education is a barrier. Worse still is the mythology that higher education, “isn’t for everyone” which is accompanied by the idea that only the “best and brightest” will succeed. Rather than recognize the artificial shortages that are created by fewer available higher-education slots and the financial barriers, society rewards those who are seen as meritorious, and this justifies abandoning those seen as having made poor choices or somehow being less deserving.

Lost in all of this is the fact that not every child starts from the same place or goes to the same K-12 school system. The discrepancy in per pupil spending varies greatly even throughout our County and even more so across both Oregon and the US. By accident of birth more so than “ability,” the odds of gaining entry to the middle class vary dramatically. Approximately 83% of students from upper-income families enroll in higher education compared to 67% from lower- income families.

But enrollment is just the first barrier to overcome.  As shown above, only 58% of students from the highest-income families graduate. For the lowest-income families this falls to 11%. To view these completion rates as evidence of “ability” hides the hidden injury of class.

The K-12 system in Oregon receives a smaller piece of the state budget pie today than in 2003. In the 2003-5 state budget, 35.7% of revenues went to education. As of 2017, this had fallen to 21.6%. Meanwhile, local funding capped by various ballot measures also fails to keep pace. 

And while the Student Success Act of 2019 is a good start toward recouping some of those decades of losses, it is only that: a start. The relaxations of the requirements to pay-in, along with a reduction of business revenues due to the pandemic, have already depleted some of the anticipated funding from that bill. 

The Oregon Quality Education Commission described the situation as follows:

“The slow growth in education funding is partly the result of the state having to replace lost local property tax revenue from Measures 5 and 50 — property tax limitation measures passed in the 1990s. Another factor is the decline in the share of the income tax revenue contributed by corporations, falling from an average of 16 percent in the 1970s to 7 percent today. Without substantial new revenue sources, K-12 schools have had to compete with other state programs, resulting in declining funding for K-12 schools, when adjusted for inflation and changing student needs, over the past 25 years.” 

Reduced funding for education concentrated in lower income communities and school districts results in lower high school graduation rates, which serves to solidify barriers to upward mobility.  

As Democrats, we must recognize that as Trump said, the system is rigged. It is rigged against the middle and lower classes. The solutions will require considerable intervention into all systems. This requires additional revenue that must be raised from those who have unfairly benefited since the 1980s. In all likelihood this will require massive tax reform to capture the excess profits obtained from deceptive speculation on Wall St, monopoly on Main St, carbon pollution and other unsustainable business practices.  

It is difficult to decide where to start to rebuild better, but K-12 education must be near the top of the list. Until citizens understand that their own well being is part of their community, and until every student has received the ability to critically evaluate information, those left behind have reason to fear the future. What looks to them like a zero-sum situation where what one group gains another group must lose fuels their fears of the “other.” 

And unfortunately, that fear makes them all the more vulnerable to the siren call of an egomaniacal leader.