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Gutting Classrooms 

Higher education is a great leveler and — especially in these times — a safety net we can’t afford to tear apart

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I just finished reading five essays from one of my war vet students: wonderful, descriptive, emotive writing about his own “up-close-and-personal” encounters with stupidity, the Bush doctrine, Obama facilitation and death in Fallujah.

Just another student — one 20-something Marine from Spokane who was ordered to shoot to kill.

His essay, describing how the unit he was in had to clean up the “mess” when his convoy accidentally hit an elderly woman carrying bread from a market, was gut-wrenching. “… [I]t was the first time I cried as a Marine … she reminded me of my mom back home.”

Yeah, PTSD, three-day nightmares with wide-open eyes, surreal visits to a VA Hospital where drugs are prescribed to erase memory, and then he gives me an essay on what to do after your three buddies in a four-man team are killed on Thanksgiving Day in Iraq.

His story has everything to do with my sticking it out as an underpaid community college instructor.

Superintendents, senators and business leaders have no clue when they cut a few billion here and another billion there from education budgets. These returning laid-off workers, chronically underpaid or misbegotten youth, and war vets need gutsy folks in City Hall, in Olympia and from the ranks of the business class to cover their backs, my back, our future’s back.

Working with some of the more disenfranchised, underserved, under-respected youth, adults, single parents and recovering humans is a kick, a challenge and an honor for me. Teaching college students ranging in age from 14 to 79 has been remarkable.

Most are just “regular” people with aspirations to succeed. Yeah, a lot are lugging around PTSD, ADHD, bipolar disorder and other learning-disability diagnoses.

But these are men and women sticking their necks out in my writing classes. The word “entitled” does not touch their lips. Moreover, I’ve worked with remarkable people who teach at community colleges and in the nuts-and-bolts four-year colleges.

Yet every year I’ve been teaching, the whole lot of us get screwed by inept, bumbling, retrograde administrators, politicians and DC lobby loyalists who have no idea what it means that the United States’ public education system — K-12, two- and four-year schools — is being run off the rails like a recalled Toyota.

The pink slips will be sent out in the coming weeks around dozens of states where governors are scrambling to cut budgets. The mess of capitalism, free marketeering, graft from inside deals and rotten American illogic (that posits education is full of fat-and-happy, inept teachers) has finally come home to roost as state after state guts education as we once knew it.

This sputtering oil-sucking, war-mongering, global warming-denying ship needs a new crew, a new design, and neither will be coming from some great entrepreneurial tree growing in the backyards of Bill Gates or Warren Buffet.

Education trumps everything, and those current headlines warning of huge teacher layoffs and tuition spikes in California will be repeated in every state, including those in the Pacific Northwest. California plans to fire 10 percent of the state’s K-12 teachers — after sacking 30,000 in 2009. And Spokane schools aren’t hiring new teachers.

The question is: Who gives a squat about a veteran of Fallujah who needs support services from a community college, support from the entire educational system that is being gutted? Tuition-raising blackmail and consolidating public universities, like Oregon is proposing, are absolutely insane moves.

Olympia needs to tax people and corporations reaping huge profits. Allowing tuition hikes of up to 14 percent a year is suicide. California did a 32 percent hike in one fell swoop of the legislative hand. That terminator state spends 11 percent of state coffers on prisons, 7.5 percent on higher education.

Anyone comprehend the calculus there?

Americans may not “get” peak oil, may not fathom climate change’s connection to polar ice melt and might not yet feel the real price of two failed wars. Many have not seen that ex-Marine’s intense stare and total disconnect.

But he’s in a second war now. Men and women like him took to the streets last week during a student walkout as part of National Day of Action to Defend Public Education. The message is clear — education is a right, not a privilege.

We owe it to laid-off workers, never-employed kids and that former Marine who has seen the military, the VA and the city fail him

Maybe my ex-leatherneck’s hope is penning essays in a community college — writing that gets to the bottom of his PTSD.

It’s his new war, and our old war — and tens of thousands of fired faculty and K-12 teachers are its casualties.

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