Here's something that might put larger trends into perspective. Earlier this month, the Bureau of Economic Analysis released data on state and local spending for the 2011 year. Here's how spending looks for state and local spending on elementary and secondary education:
This isn't adjusted for inflation, so the decline is even worse. The dotted line is the seven-year pre-recession average projected forward. I'm pretty cynical about these things and knew that spending had declined in 2010, but I had expected it to even out or go up in 2011. Instead, it has declined further.
There's been yearly increases in spending on elementary and secondary education going back decades. We didn't develop some sort of technology that made educating young people cheaper in 2009 - instead, states were hit hard by a housing crash and liquidity issues that come with having to maintain a balanced budget in light of the worst downturn since the Great Depression. This also comes on top of the mass layoffs of teachers, some 200,000 during this recession. Rather than firing teachers while spending more elsewhere, we are just spending less educating our children, period. This is the worst kind of disinvestment, made at the worst possible time.
To bring in teachers' unions, the anti-teacher's union agitprop film "Won't Back Down" is getting negative reviews, including Liza Featherstone in Dissent and Dana Goldstein in The Nation. When you see examples of parents filling in for a failing school system, notice that this will increasingly be the case with declining funding for education. That gap in the graph above is being filled by parents and teachers for free or with children getting less education. Megan Erickson wrote about this trend in Jacobin, noting, "parents and kids are increasingly being asked to pitch in and paint the building or hawk candy bars to fill budget gaps. That’s because the values of freedom, autonomy, and choice are in perfect accordance with market-based 'reforms,' and with the neoliberal vision of society on which they’re based."
And this graph is why you need some organization at the front lines fighting for better spending on education, which is part of what teachers' unions do. There's been some great write-ups of the successes of the teachers' union strike in Chicago, including Richard D. Kahlenberg at The New Republic, Hamiltion Nolan at Gawker, and Josh Eidelson at Salon. A significant part of the strike was over broader and better educational outcome and more resources for schools. As this graph shows, it is a battle that will continue to be important.