The Sad State of Public Education: NOT a Rant Against Teachers

Yesterday, I had a meeting with the principal of the boys' new school. I had missed new family orientation because Sister goes to a different school, and it was over by the time I returned to our neighborhood after dropping Sis off for her first day of Kindergarten. So, I wanted to ask a few questions about how things work at "Puff" (Sister's nickname for her brothers' school.... don't ask me?). And I wanted to make sure The Bean, who has always worked a bit ahead of grade level, would have access to the kind of programming he needs to stay challenged and engaged.

The good news is that there are lots of ways for that to happen. All the teachers are "GATE certified" (you may know, but I did not, that GATE = Gifted and Talented Education). So, in every classroom, there is lots of differentiation going on to meet all the kids needs. There are also pull-out programs in math and literature for 4th and 5th graders. There is Math Olympiad. There is a school garden. There are many, many after school enrichment activities.

The principal told me that the state of public funding for schools in California, like in every other state, is dire. But that at Puff we are very fortunate (very fortunate -- she really drove this home, as if to make sure I understood how very fortunate we are to have two of our three children at Puff). Because at Puff there is a very active PTA; there is a politically active group of parents who lobbied the city to remove the restrictions on a tax-free development zone in order to provide more revenue for local schools; there is a highly-educated workforce of parents who come in to share their expertise on a variety of subjects; there are some families who donate significant amounts of money to the school. The size of one donation, which I will not specify here, could buy a house in most cities in this country, but in this case pays for the GATE teacher training and programs at Puff. And let me be clear about one more advantage (and these are my words, not hers): Puff is on the right side of the tracks.

Sister's school is on the wrong side of the tracks, literally and figuratively. She is one of the few white students at the school. Many, and perhaps most, families' first language is Spanish. There is a PTA, but it is far less visible than the PTA at Puff. My guess is that, in general, the parents are not as highly educated and not as well-employed as are the Puff parents. My guess is that income levels are lower, and donations to the school are smaller. There are no after school activities that I know of, except for YMCA childcare for those families who need it. Although we have been entirely pleased with the school so far, when we tell people where Sister goes to school, they raise their eyebrows and say "Oh..... that's too bad. Well, hopefully you can get her into Puff next year."

I left the meeting with the principal at Puff feeling truly sad. It was as if a policy issue that I had always found troubling finally showed its full face to me. And the thing is that I'm not sad or worried for Sister. Our family is one of the lucky ones: enough money to pay for our needs and a few wants, too. I am just terribly sad that the quality of educational programming, particularly the access to specialized instruction and enrichment activities, depends upon the income levels of parents for a given school. This is not necessarily a new phenomenon: housing prices are tied to perceived school quality almost everywhere, and some families who can afford to choose out of public schools altogether (although it is also true that many people who chose private school are making an active choice for something -- such as faith affiliation -- and not necessarily a choice against public education). And yet, here we are in our new little town, in a school district with a good reputation, and there are very clear disparities between the programs and resources available at one school versus those available at another.

This, to me, seems unjust. If our public education system is to fulfill its purpose of educating tomorrow's workforce and undergirding our democracy, it ought to be equitable. Programs and resources should be available to all students in a district, or city, or state -- not just those who are very fortunate to attend a particular school where private donations fund so much programming.

I am sad for all the students who, because of the family and circumstances and neighborhood they were born into, won't have access to the same education my kids have access to in the very same school district. Husband and I understand how very fortunate we are, not to have 2 of 3 of our children attend Puff, but to have been born into families that had enough money to house and feed us without too much trouble. We are fortunate to have been born into English-speaking families with white skin in a country that still harbors at least a subconscious, if not overt, racism. We are fortunate to have attended strong public schools. We are fortunate our parents could help us afford college. We know that we did not "make it" on our own, but had every advantage in making what we have made of our lives so far.

I wish that every child in our country could be so very fortunate. And I wish our elected officials would take steps to make every child in our country so very fortunate. Don't you?


CitricSugar said...

Equity is a big concern for me as a teacher. And it's hard to expect an active PTA when parents in a neighbourhood are working three jobs to feed their families. The socio-economics involved, and layers of institutionalized racism and elitist thought is staggering. The quagmires of funding, standardized testing and, far more grey and terrifying, accountability are treacherous and often broached by people who have no understanding of education and the challenges today's teachers and students are facing. But--as long as we have parents who can "see" what's going on, there's hope... Keep advocating, Molly.

Sandy Longhorn said...

Molly, thanks for this post, so open and forthright.

Gerry said...

AaMen, Amen.

My heart remembers the ache of RTFF's school years. My gut remembers the anger. (I am forever a child: It's not fair!!)

Molly said...

Thanks, everyone, for reading. I hope someday our leaders will make equity a priority -- let's keep making noise about it.

And Gerry, I never knew you could sing :)