“Bring Enough for Everyone”: What We Lose When We Lose Public Education

Did your schoolteachers say, “Don’t bring [candy, toys, coveted items] to school unless you bring enough for everyone”? Mine did. Maybe they recognized how incapable children are of understanding the fundamental injustice of wealth inequality, of some people having immensely desirable things that for some reason cannot be attained by others.

Those who endured segregation tell many tales of that awful day when they had to answer that question:  Why can’t I go there? Why them and not me?

Two-Tier Public Education

It strikes me now that where I grew up, people thought school should be, as much as possible, a place of equality. Now, even public schools have gone to a pay-as-you-go model with an amazing number of private companies with vested interests running the art classes, music classes, field trips, clubs, and sports. There are few luxuries and overwhelmingly, they are reserved for those who have means.

For example, at a high school I know of, a teacher runs a for-profit SAT-ACT tutoring company which he promotes at school meetings, offering prep classes—using school facilities— that parents have to pay for (There is always a vague mention of “scholarships for those on free and reduce lunches,” which requires poor kids or their parents to step up, identify themselves as poor, and see if there are enough scholarships. In my experience, there have never been more than one or two. “And when that’s gone, there’s no more” as my mother used to say.)

It wasn’t always like this

I went to a public high school in a small town during the 1970’s. It was new. It had shiny new Chemistry and Biology labs with a Bunsen burner and a sink at every desk. There were good microscopes for every student or two. It had a big theatre with banked seats and several small theatres. It had a planetarium. It had fully equipped Wood Shop and Electric Shop classrooms and fully equipped Home Ec classrooms with sewing machines and kitchen ranges. It had band and orchestra practice rooms. It had five choirs and special practice rooms. Our school competed in choral events and toured for three days in our own state and another state. We didn’t have to pay for our own robes, nor our coach, food and hotel (beyond a very small stipend which I could afford with my babysitting money)—although we did sell the records we cut and some choirs sang for pay in small venues.

We had a Debate class and students didn’t pay for the hotel or lunch when we went to a tournament in a far-away town. We had a Math Club that competed at other schools. Of course, we had a student newspaper regularly printed, and a yearbook put together by students and sold for a reasonable sum.

Naturally, we had a football, basketball, and baseball team. Physical Education offered soccer, field hockey, tennis, gymnastics, basketball, volleyball. Oh, and as electives, even poor kids could take golf and skiing.

We had unionized teachers who taught besides the basics, Sociology, Psychology, Ethnic Studies, Computer Science, Debate, Theatre, Ecology, Business courses such as Typing and Bookkeeping. We had an active chapter of Future Farmers of America. We had Drivers’ Ed. with school cars as well as a lab with simulators.  We had a main library and several specialized study centers with their own books. Our library held subscriptions to dozens of magazines and newspapers. Foreign languages included Spanish, French, and German, and we had a language lab with practice tapes and booths.

I’m relying on my memory, so undoubtedly I’m forgetting some other amenities. The only parents who chose private schools were those who wanted a religious education. There were some rich people in town, but most of the school’s population was not professional; it was farmers and workers. People were willing to be taxed to have a great education, and they didn’t seem to begrudge poorer kids a great education. My college roommate also went to a fine public school where her Spanish class went to Mexico. These aspects of education were not considered outrageous.

Reserving the Best for the Richest

I live in a much richer area now, but the public school my daughter attends is a pale shadow of my former high school. It offers plays in a theatre shared with the middle school, or in the cafeteria. Some of the plays are farmed out to a nonprofit with low-paid assistants.  It does offer AP courses, but the science labs don’t have much equipment. When swimming classes for regular students were supposed to happen, the larger group had to do something else so that the few members of the Water Polo club could use the pool instead. Archery was supposed to be offered, but that too was cancelled because the field had to be improved for the baseball team.

Even with parents fund raising on a regular basis, students still need to buy some of their own books. The yearbook costs around $100, more than a day’s work for a minimum wage parent, and of course, students make their own way to field trips which are often on Saturdays. This ensures that most of the school day is spent on “skills and drills,” notecards, tests, and outlines.

I read in a newsletter that one teacher is leading a few students on a tour of Eastern Europe, obviously not with public support. So here and there, the more privileged parents arrange for special experiences. No one dreams of a Home Ec lab with sewing machines and ranges, or Drivers Ed using actual cars, though these classes are of critical importance to the poor. And the worst is that even the staff and some of the teachers don’t see a problem with the enormous opportunity gap. It seems to be accepted that school, like the community around us, is divided into haves and have-nots. Why should it be different from the outer world where some students go to Africa for six weeks during the summer, and others can’t go to the community center two blocks away for fear of being jumped by a gang.

Never Going Beyond the ‘Hood

In the eighteenth century, most French peasants, except for soldiers, lived their entire lives within five miles of their homes. Small schools set up in poor neighborhoods offer a similarly restricted horizon: no sports competition with other schools, except cross-country, no choice of electives, lots of books and study sheets, not too much experiential learning. Unlike at a big high school where students at least have a chance of inter-class mingling, students at a small school in a poor neighborhood garner little social capital. And poor kids get into college but can’t stay there; they can’t find a place to be at home, a way to survive the disparities or have an identity they can stand.

Democracy is an Investment

It’s guaranteed that the U.S. will lose its edge in the coming generations. We have chosen to throw away generations of research on how learning happens and with it, the students who needed real learning, the kind that leaves you with actual capabilities and confidence. In the name of saving money (to spend instead on locking people up), we have supplanted real expertise with spurious business models and “gamed” statistics. (For example, a public charter school can’t kick students out, but it can declare that anyone with less than a B average will have to repeat the entire year—or switch to a truly public school that has to accept everyone. That massages their statistics nicely.)

We give teachers at the poorest schools an impossible job and then turn our backs, expecting them to be superhuman. “Waiting for Superman” is in that sense, very aptly named.

Parents still want a great education for their kids, but some who aren’t even religious send kids to private religious schools because that’s where the money is. The rest have been cowed into lower expectations.  It’s no coincidence that the TV airwaves are stuffed with winner-take-all shows. This is our model for school and society now: enormous windfalls for the winner; frenzied fruitless efforts for the rest.

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