Rear view of young students running to building

“What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy.” – John Dewey, The School and Society, 1907

In America, our commitment to our public school should never be compromised because it is, truly, one of those things that make our nation great. In every state across the nation are public schools that serve as the centerpiece to individual communities.

And, for the nation, according to the Center on Education Policy, they serve the following important missions in a democratic society:

  • To provide universal access to free education
  • To guarantee equal opportunities for all children
  • To unify a diverse population
  • To prepare people for citizenship in a democratic society
  • To prepare people to become economically self-sufficient
  • To improve social conditions

Unfortunately, we witnessed numerous attacks on our schools and our teachers, including significant budget cuts to education at the federal and state levels since 2008, that are having enormous consequences. Among other things, inequitable and inadequate funding of our schools are undermining the core missions of public education in a democratic society, particularly providing “universal access to free education” and “equal opportunities for all children.”

This school year, as our nation’s children have headed back to school, many of the headlines and stories are quite disturbing. First, years of budget cuts to education at the federal, state, and local levels have resulted in squeezes on teacher pay, layoffs, and hiring freezes. These funding cuts have been accompanied by a number of recent attacks on the teaching profession, including the overuse and reliance on standardized testing, the Associated Press reports that schools across the country are facing severe teacher shortages.

Consequently, many schools are increasing relying on uncertified and unlicensed teachers. According to the Department of Education, nearly 7 percent of the nation’s black students attend schools where less than 80 percent of teachers meet all state certification and licensure requirements. In fact, they report that “black students are more than four times as likely, and Latino students twice as likely, as white students to attend these schools.” The fact is that teacher quality matters and putting more inexperienced and unqualified teachers in the classroom negatively impacts learning. Unfortunately, that is exactly what is disproportionately occurring in poorer communities and schools.

Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution speaks to the importance that money and resources play in terms of improving our nation’s schools in a recent blog. She writes:

Until more people accept the need to raise teacher salaries significantly, schools are not likely to improve. . . [T]he main reason that money matters in education is because teachers matter, and attracting and retaining the best talent has to be a priority.

Budget cuts have also underfunded what is needed to run classrooms and so both parents and teachers are increasingly being asked to pay for school supplies. Rachel Abrams of the New York Times explains, “With many school district budgets as tight as ever, schools keep relying more on parents to pay for what may have been basic classroom items during their childhood. As the income inequality gap has widened, that has placed an extra burden on many families that are already struggling.”

The National Retail Federation estimates that the average amount that parents spend on school supplies is up 42 percent over the last decade. And that financial burden continues to expand.

For example, columnist Jeff Yang recently told the story of how the Los Angeles public elementary school his son attends recently sent home a note with the list of school supplies his son would need but included a list of things the parents were asked to buy for the classroom, including reams of white paper, pencils, crayons, dry-erase board markers, paper clips, and rubber bands.

And teachers, many of whom have always paid hundreds of dollars of their own pockets for school supplies, are increasingly being asked to fund classroom shortfalls. Consequently, some teachers are now turning to GoFundMe accounts to help raise private dollars to offset these expenses.

Obviously, private fundraising efforts are more likely to work in a wealthy community. According to Rob Reich, co-director of the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society at Stanford University, the Hillsborough School Foundation in Hillsborough, California, where the media family income is in excess of $250,000, actively asks for parents to help supplement funding to its already wealthy schools. Reich reports that the Foundation raised about $2,300 per student to help finance “class-size reductions, librarians, art and music teachers, and Smart technology in every classroom.”

Of course, while this might be possible and very nice for very wealthy schools and communities to do in order to help their students be successful, teachers and students in poorer communities are, once again, increasingly left behind. Yang paints a disturbing picture of the increasing inequality this is creating. As he points out:

America’s network of public schools [was] originally conceived of as providing not just a sound educational foundation for future generations – regardless of their parents’ socioeconomic status. Today’s increasingly patchwork system, dependent on the whims of billionaires and the extracurricular efforts of parents to maintain, is stacking the deck, such that families with the will or wherewithal to invest in their kids’ education create well-resourced schools that are magnets for other driven and deep-pocketed parents. The educationally rich get educationally richer; dysfunctional districts slide into irrecoverable brokenness. And because these districts are disproportionately low-income – and black and Hispanic – the net outcome is gut-wrenching educational apartheid.

Meanwhile, the cuts to schools and cuts to local community centers are leading to corresponding reductions or the elimination of a number of extra-curricular activities and increases in the use of costly private club or for-profit sports. NPR’s Patti Neighmond quotes Darryl Hill with Kids Play USA Foundation as saying that low-income children are being “shut out more and more and more” from youth sports because of the movement from public to private funding of youth sports.

According to data from Up2US Sports, 40 percent of school districts now charge fees to participate in sports and, if current trends continue, 27 percent of public schools will not have any sports by 2020. The result of this and the push by wealthier parents to give their kids a competitive advantage has resulted in rapid growth in privately funding youth sports. In fact, research by Travis Dorsch at Utah State University, finds that up to 10.5 percent of a family’s gross income is being spent on youth sports.

Once again, the gap between the experiences and opportunities of “haves and have-nots” widens.

These gaps and disparities are apparent when it comes to school closings as well. The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools and the Opportunity to Learn Campaign have both reviewed recent school closings and takeovers in the cities of Newark, New Orleans, Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York City and found that the students negatively affected are overwhelmingly African-American or Latino. In its report entitled The Systematic Disenfranchisement of African American and Latino Communities through School Takeovers, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools writes about how these takeovers and privatization of public schools fragments political power and local oversight, increases segregation, undermines financial stability, and eliminates community-based institutions.

On this final point, the report explains:

By closing public schools, removing them from local control or turning them in to privately-governed charter schools, the connections between public schools and neighborhoods have been dismantled. In many cities, children no longer have guaranteed access to a school in their neighborhood. Some neighborhoods – dubbed “school deserts” by Chicago organizer Jitu Brown – have no public schools at all. Particularly in Black and Brown communities that have already been decimated by disinvestment, schools are often the last remaining neighborhood-based institution. Without them, parents struggle to transport their children to assigned schools throughout the city, community access to school libraries and playgrounds has been cut off, and even long-relied-upon polling places have been forced to move.

Chicago’s Jitu Brown, who is the national director of the Journey for Justice Alliance and an organizer of the hunger strike in opposition to the privatization of Dyett High School in Chicago, rightfully asks two simple questions, “Why can’t we have public schools? Why do low-income minority students need to have their schools run by private contractors?”

To meet Dewey’s measure of what a community should want for its children, a good measure is what wealthy parents demand for their kids. As the Texas Equity Center points out in its report Money Still Matters!, wealthy parents “have poured two and three times as much money into school budget to create truly exemplary schools” that include high-quality teachers, small class sizes, diverse opportunities to learn, challenging expectations and curriculum, technology, and engaging extracurricular programs. Through both public dollars and supplemental funding through fundraisers, booster clubs, and local education foundations, wealthy parents and communities “spend their money to ensure their children have every advantage in and out of classrooms. . . .”

The report adds:

Don’t all of us want all those things for our children? The problem, however, is that a large majority of the state’s children are economically disadvantaged in and out of classrooms – every day, every year.

Our nation’s most vulnerable children deserve better from us and they know it. Representing more than 200,000 students in the Houston Independent School District (HISD), an amicus brief filed by the HISD Student Congress makes the case as to why the Texas Supreme Court should uphold the findings of a lower court that Texas’s public school finance system in both inadequate and inequitable. High school students Zaakir Tameez and Amy Fan write:

As students, we have seen firsthand the programs that can help us succeed. We know what works, we know it will help, and we know it is needed. Our politicians, however, have yet to act. Paying for students while they’re in school is smarter than paying when they’re on the streets. Educating our citizenry is vital to protecting our democracy. Leveling the playing field is our moral obligation to create a society where everyone has a chance to succeed.

Above all else, students need hope: hope that they can live a better life than their parents, hope that they can really have a chance, hope that they, too, matter.

Today’s children are our nation’s next generation of leaders. If we care about them, their future, and our nation’s future, we must listen to their pleas and demand action and equity for all of our nation’s public schools and students.

Opportunity and hope in America’s public schools: by @BruceLesley v/ @First_Focus #InvestInKids
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Want to learn more? First Focus is a bipartisan advocacy organization dedicated to making children and families the priority in federal policy and budget decisions. Read more about our work on education.

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