Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Getting the Schools All Children Deserve

Monday's New York Times carried an opinion piece by Charles Blow on the Laquan McDonald murder in Chicago. McDonald, a 17 year-old African American, was shot down by a white police officer in a horrific incident captured on video by a police car's dash cam. The incident is, of course, another in the ongoing horror of police violence against young Black men. Blow's main point is that if we are to understand why these police killings keep happening, we have to accept that it is because our society tacitly approves or willingly tolerates them. The problem is systemic. If America wanted this to end, says Blow, it would end. He feels that the majority of Americans have turned their backs on this issue, refusing to take a strong moral stance.

The clear implication of what Blow is saying, for me, is that in the end in this country, Black lives really do not matter. I think Blow has an important point and I think it is a very short leap to apply this insight to public education.

In our inner cities, once beautiful public school buildings schools stand crumbling from age and disrepair as mute testimony to our systematic neglect . Children attend schools without nurses, librarians and guidance counselors. Teachers lay out their own money for basic instructional supplies, while many students are without textbooks and other tools of learning. Just walking to school can be a harrowing experience for young children navigating the mean streets of the inner city. Can we really say that this is not directly connected to the color of the faces of the vast majority of children who attend these schools?

Inner city children are forced to learn and their teachers are forced to teach in these conditions because our society, you and me, don't care enough to do something about it. So what if some inner city kid has to attend a crumbling school, my school district just built a state of the art high school and my taxes are high enough. So what if some inner city kids don't have the basic tools of learning, my school district is providing for all that my children need. So what if inner city schools don't have nurses or guidance counselors, I have made sure that my kids go to schools that have all these things.

If we truly cared about the school children of the inner city, wouldn't we do everything we could, spend the money necessary to insure they had access to the same quality education we all want for our own children?

But does money really matter that much in education? Is it the lack of funds that has led us to this point? Didn't New Jersey pour lots of money into so-called "Abbot Districts" without much improvement in outcomes? Well yes, money does matter and yes, increased spending did not yield much in the way of improved outcomes in many New Jersey districts. Rutgers University researcher, Bruce Baker has this to say about the impact of money on schooling:

     money matters, resources that cost money matter, and more equitable distribution of school funding can improve outcomes. Policymakers would be well-advised to rely on high-qualityresearch to guide the critical choices they make regarding school finance.

Clearly it is about money, but it is also about a consistent and reliable source of money over time, so that real changes can be made. In New Jersey a cycle of increased funding followed by funding cuts has undermined any progress that might have been made. It is also about spending the money wisely and where it may have the most impact and in the inner city that may mean spending money on health services and early childhood education and other services nt ordinarily associated with the schools.

What can I do about these things, you say? Plenty. Five years ago the President of the United States was opposed to gay marriage. Now gay marriage is the law of the land. Why? Because most people decided it was time. If most people decided that it was time for the police to stop the killing of Black children in the streets, these killings would end. A few hundred people closing down Chicago's "Magnificent Mile" won't do it, but hundreds of thousands of people armed with the truth, and the energy and the vote could stop it if they wanted to.

It is our elected representatives that have systematically denied urban schools the resources they need. A system based primarily on property taxes is sure to put urban schools at a disadvantage. If we wanted our representatives to actually spend the money to make our urban schools look like our suburban schools, they would do it. The truth is, we don't want it because it would cost money and would require effort. So as long as things are good for our own kids, we don't really care.

But what if all moms and dads came to realize that when even one child is forced to attend a school that is in poor repair and poorly staffed and poorly equipped, it darkens the future for all our children? What if everyone acted on that realization by voting for representatives who would take their responsibility to all children seriously. What if we were all willing to close down not just the Magnificent Mile, but every local shopping mall and clog the hallways of school boards and legislatures until all children had a clean, safe, well-staffed school to attend. What if we did that? Do you think that we could end the scourge of educational discrimination then?

Another New York Times columnist, Joe Nocera, recently ran his last column for the paper. In it he cited Paula McEvoy, the program director for the Center for Ethics and Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. McAvoy says, "The place where you learn matters." If you go to a broken down school society is telling you it doesn't care about your education. McEvoy has a message for the education reformers. Rather than spending money supporting charter schools, "Why not spend your money on infrastructure instead. How about setting a goal of putting every kid in a state- of-the-art school by 2025."

Now there is a good idea. Philanthropists can help us build worthy buildings for all students and then let the professionals provide the instruction. I could march for that.