Schools and health lose out as US public services endure worst crisis since 1930s
Julian Borger in Harrah, Oklahoma
Monday May 26, 2003
School was definitely over for Sally Kelly last week. The Oklahoma primary school teacher was trying to cram years of accumulated experience and memories into a few cardboard boxes and get them out of the door before the building was locked up for the holidays.
Thousands of teachers across the state and the US have been doing more or less the same thing in the past few months, squeezed out by a combination of recession, tax cuts and record military spending. Oklahoma is cutting 6,000 teaching jobs in the financial year just ending and the next, and the budgetary outlook is grim. But for Ms Kelly, there is more at stake than losing her vocation. Her breast cancer is in remission but still requires monitoring and medicines. Without the health insurance that came with her job, she can afford neither.
"For me, it's a life and death situation," she said, sitting in the deserted classroom, her head covered by a yellow turban to hide the effects of chemotherapy.
After surgery, a tube was inserted under the skin just below her collar bone to serve as a "port" for the chemotherapy, but she can no longer afford the drugs to keep it open, and she thinks she will probably have to get it removed. In a wealthier state in better times, some of her treatment might be covered by Medicaid, the national health insurance scheme for the poor. But the scheme is facing its own budget crisis, and the poverty threshold for eligibility is constantly rising. Ms Kelly is jobless but owns her home so may still not be poor enough.
Once her boxes are filled, all that remains is to remove the inspirational slogans with which she decorated her classroom. The last to come down says: "Attitudes are contagious. Is yours worth catching?"
She is determined to remain upbeat. This is a "detour not a roadblock" she says, but the truth is that her chances of finding a new teaching post soon are small.
Oklahoma's job cuts are part of a deep nationwide retrenchment eating away at the public sphere. According to some analysts, the states, which control most public services, are going through their worst crisis since the Depression. While the US is at the zenith of its global power, its health and education systems would be grounds for a scandal in poorer countries.
The Oklahoma Education Association reports that secondary-school class sizes are in the 40s and heading for the 50s. Oregon is closing its schools several weeks before the end of term and laying off public prosecutors to balance its budget. Missouri has ordered every third light bulb to be removed from official buildings to save money.
As a result of the cuts, 275,000 fewer Texan children will receive health care, and in Nebraska almost 25,000 low-income mothers have lost medical cover for their families because eligibility thresholds have been raised. Over this year and next, 1.7m Americans risk losing their health insurance.
The Bush administration argues that this is a crisis of the states' making. It says that during the Wall Street boom of the 1990s state governments expanded their budgets with the proceeds of capital gains and other property taxes. Now the boom is over, they will have to scale back. President Bush initially refused to bail out the states, but the Senate forced him to set aside $20bn (£12.5bn) in rescue money as a condition for agreeing last week to a $350bn tax cut. The money would have been almost enough to close the shortfall in this financial year but it will come too late to help sacked teachers such as Ms Kelly. And the package falls well short of the states' needs next year. Meanwhile, the federal government has piled spending obligations on the states without commensurate funding.
The terrorist alerts require constant overtime by state troopers and medical teams, but there is no budget for them. Worse still are the requirements of George Bush's 2001 education act, optimistically entitled No Child Left Behind. After the rhetoric of the public launch had died away, the programme was cut off from funds, which went towards the administration's two leading priorities - tax cuts and defence spending. Oklahoma officials believe the No Child Left Behind scheme is up to 40% underfunded. State schools face rigorous tests without the money to pass them. Schools that fail face their staff being sacked and replaced.
"It's scary," says Stacy Martin, an Oklahoma Education Association spokeswoman. "We're going to be so ill equipped to meet those standards it's frightening. Among Oklahoma teachers, the Bush scheme is jokingly referred to as "No School Left Standing".
"Why are we cutting services?" Ms Kelly asked. "I don't understand. I know tax is an ugly word but you get what you pay for. I just think we have our priorities wrong."