Vouchers, independent school districts, charter schools, magnet schools….are they all signs of our country’s abandonment of public education? Or a commitment to improve the education of our children?
Many years ago when I asked my 5 year old daughter which school she wanted to attend from a choice of magnet theme elementary schools, without hesitation her reply was “my school” – which to her meant the one in our neighborhood.
What is happening to schools to cause such anxiety for parents about where to send their precious children? Consider these three aspects of education:
1. In the neighborhood: Across a school district, neighborhood schools don’t offer the same education nor the same bonds with the community – In fact, most neighborhoods do not have like-minded families who have the time, resources and commitment to their children’s education. Nor are they all surrounded by clean, safe streets and sidewalks. In some neighborhoods the schools are housed in inadequate facilities with broken equipment, peeling paint, and nasty bathrooms. Many of us have been in those schools and those neighborhoods. The neighborhood is disconnected from the school and is not invited to use the facility or participate in the education of the children.
2. In the school: Schools are often administrative messes – testing- testing- testing; budget struggles, aging technology, conflicting priorities, reduction of pure teaching time, poor use of volunteers, crazy bus schedules that either leave children waiting out front or riding for hours, frustrated teachers, and children with complex challenges. Too often classrooms do not promote a curiosity about the world. Too many administrators and teachers do not welcome and invite parents to become active participants in the school.
3. In the systems: When I was considering applying to serve on a local school board, a parent told me I needed to understand one thing: Public education is a bureaucracy that exists to perpetuate itself. It is not in business to educate children, but to maintain its existence. Those were chilling words to me and I fought to dispute that perspective. However, my four-year experience was that more often than not, issued were viewed from a system perspective and as such, the guiding criteria for decisions was protection of the system – not necessarily what was in a child’s best interest.
What to do? So if you are a parent who needs to decide where to send your child to school, how do you do that? As a customer of a public education system, you seek the best deal for your child and family. Unfortunately, that means thinking only of the best place for your own child and not the bigger picture of what is best for all children. If all parents considered both factors, we might have stronger schools that serve all children.
Who in our community takes on the responsibility to ensure a good education for all children? A number of local advocacy groups, neighborhood associations and civic organizations support public education. But as the issues become more complex – with vouchers, charter schools, etc, I believe it is our elected officials who are obligated to take the larger view. City Council, County Commissioners, our State delegations to the NC General Assembly and the US Congress are our only hopes to affirm and strengthen that foundational promise to provide each and every child in this country with a sound education…one that prepares them to be active successful citizens.
Tragically, I am fearful that commitment is currently being abandoned for other interests.