Let’s Talk About Education. Public Education

I know, I know it has been forever. In my defense…I have none really, except busy writing for other places and figuring some things out behind the scenes here. Hood Feminism is going to be a solo act going forward, and I have been working out how to handle that part. Still figuring it out to be honest, but I have some political thoughts on education and suddenly remembered I can rant and provide content! Win/win!

So, as we talk about school choice & vouchers and Betsy DeVos being spectacularly unqualified, I see more and more people pointing to “failing” public schools as proof that American ed needs a revolution. Invariably they point to lower test scores at schools with a 99% poverty rate and no social services left after 12 rounds of budget cuts. They skip right over stories about lead in school water fountains and in homes across the country.  They pretend that school breakfast and lunch options are programs that “need” to be cut for the good of the children. Never mind the fact that hungry kids don’t learn, certainly don’t discuss the impact of poverty on students in public schools. Just cut funds for libraries, nurses, teachers, food, clean water, books, and then blame public education for low scores on tests that are fundamentally useless.

Meanwhile as a parent of two kids in public school, who went to public schools (Chicago Public Schools at that), I want some things out about how public education actually works when the funding is there and the kids can focus. It’s a ride, but let’s go.

I started public school at 3. There’s a whole story involving birth certificates that I won’t go into, but suffice to say I was a smart kid. I could read, do some basic math (shout out to PBS and the wonders of 321 Contact, Electric Company, and Sesame Street), I was also for a host of reasons what they called an “at-risk” kid. No father, lived with a grandparent, unstable living situations prior to that point…you know, I was slated to be one of those girls. A statistic that someone would insist could never succeed given my situation.

Except with access to quality public education I thrived. Lots of my old report cards talk about me not living up to my potential, but that was because I had C’s in the classes that didn’t interest me and A’s in the ones that did. The Iowa Test of Basic Skills in 3rd grade gave my school a clue on how to direct my talents. By 4th I was in Gifted & Talented classes and I was doing pretty well. My home life remained imperfect, my social skills could have been better, but suddenly the stories I wrote for myself at home had value. Because my teachers read them and my family had an idea that I wasn’t just a daydreamer. I went to K-12 in public schools. I joined the military to pay for college and went to a public university. I didn’t go to a private school until I got my Masters from DePaul and even that happened because they have a robust selection of evening and summer classes and the campus was next to my job in the Chicago federal building.

My husband is dyslexic. He started in a private Catholic school but they weren’t equipped to help him. Eventually his parents sent him to the local public school because by law they had to provide services. He went from not being able to read to being at the top of his class by the time he graduated from a public high school. We met in college, at a public university. We graduated together from the University of Illinois and now he’s the one at DePaul getting his MA. Neither of us ever considered sending our kids anywhere but public school.

My oldest son will graduate from a Chicago public high school in June. He will go to a public university in the fall, and much like his parents he will graduate in a few years and go on to follow his dreams. Because he had access to the same free public education that we did. Well not quite the same, see when I was a kid my school had a full time librarian, nurse, and a staff that cooked and cleaned to support the teachers, principal, and vice principal. Class sizes were small, between 20 and 25 kids on average. Art, music, gym and recess were standard. Afterschool and summer offerings were pretty robust, and I could choose between free options.

My husband is 4 years younger than me, and things had already begun to change by the time his parents transferred him into his public elementary school. The librarian was there part time. So was the nurse. Class sizes were closer to 30, he had gym and music but no art, and there were fewer support staff. He had summer options, though not as many as I did and many of the Gifted & Talented programs had already been cut.  But still, he did well and his parents made up for the things that were no longer available.

Fast forward to our kids. My oldest still had recess and gym, but we had to pay for most of his access to art and music. His school had a library and a librarian, but that had a lot to do with PTA fundraising. His brother is at the same school and every year there’s a little more gone. The cuts outpace the fundraising now, and the class sizes in the high 20’s to low 30’s when my oldest was in school there, are now mid 30’s to just shy of 40. It would be 40, but the building is old and the fire codes for most of the rooms max out at 38.

My youngest has an IEP because he’s on the autism spectrum. He gets his services because well the law mandates them and he has the parental support needed to combat a system that is faltering under the weight of not enough money and too many people convinced that at risk kids don’t deserve a chance.

When someone like DeVos compares education to choosing between Uber, Lyft and a taxi, and never stops to consider the people who ride public transit, bike, or walk, that betrays a fundamental lack of understanding not only education but our larger society. Sure, for upper middle class parents with a neuro typical child school choice probably sounds great. Heck, in many cities it probably could be great. But what about the kids who don’t come from that mold, the ones who need extra support or who can excel in some ways, but struggle in others? What about the kids that are hard to teach, harder still to help because of family issues? I could get counseling in 6th grade when I needed it because that was an in school service. My son gets speech therapy because his access to education is mandated by law so the school has to provide the extras that he needs.

What happens after public ed is gutted? I understand the appeal of the myth of choice. After all, in a big city you’ll have lots of options. One of them will probably work out, but what about those with mobility issues who can only find a school on the other side of the city? That 2 hour bus ride doesn’t lend itself to successful outcomes. What about suburban and rural areas where there are only a handful of schools and none want to take on a kid who needs extra support? We’ve already seen that vouchers don’t fix the problem,  that charter schools have not been the magic bullet either, in fact what we do know is that public ed works best when the funding isn’t subject to whims or dependent on test scores, when class sizes are small and the surrounding community is thriving.

Public education isn’t a handout, isn’t a gift given to the undeserving. It is an investment by a society into itself, and into its future. It’s one of the cornerstones of a healthy community, and behind all the smoke and mirrors, what’s on offer is a poisoned pill. It’s shiny, it sounds great in a distant way when you don’t think too hard about much funding public schools have lost to create this option. When you don’t ask yourself about the limits of the schools that are “better” because classrooms still have finite space, and what happens when those schools run out of space, and there are still kids that need an education, but now their local school has been gutted because the already threadbare budget has collapsed?

We have to think beyond the immediate, beyond the children in our house and think about what’s good for all children. Or we end up backing policies that will help some kids in the very short term and ruin access for most kids in the long term. A well funded well run public school system remains the best of all possible options for all possible children.

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