I am opposed to the use of public funds for private education. –Jonathan Kozol
They say money is the root of all evil. In education, it’s lack of money that drives most of the serious problems and shocking inequities that really need to be corrected. With an educational funding system that is heavily based on local property taxes, schools in rich neighborhoods are rich and schools in poor neighborhoods are poor.
This is the reality in America today: Children from the suburbs can enjoy learning in clean, cheerful, well-equipped schools with plenty of books; experienced, well-paid teachers who have ample opportunities for professional development; and elective classes that help develop individual talents in the arts, academic clubs, or athletics. Many children in inner cities and rural areas go to school in unsafe buildings with inadequate numbers of outdated books; have little or no access to computers or other necessary equipment; spend their days in overcrowded classrooms staffed by underpaid, discouraged teachers; and enjoy no opportunities to participate in elective classes such as band, leadership, or PE.
How does this relate to the current national choice of political leaders? John McCain is in favor of extending this shameful system of educational apartheid; Barack Obama has good ideas for fixing it.
John McCain is in favor of school vouchers, charter schools, and home schooling. The fact is that all three of these initiatives—so popular among many who call themselves social conservatives—would only make matters worse.
A national system of school vouchers would channel public money for education not to the schools that need it but to parents who don’t. If a school is in trouble due to lack of money, a voucher system would simply allow families to take their support and their resources elsewhere. The poorer schools would continue to punish their children for being poor while those marginally more fortunate would become overcrowded. The sensible way to go about solving these problems is to provide adequate funding for all schools—and that’s something the current Republican leadership is reluctant to do.
Publicly funded charter schools are all too often another means of segregating the rich from the poor, allowing districts that have the resources to establish satellite schools that can be and often are selective and discriminatory in terms of which students are allowed to attend. Even the best charter schools tend to have a different philosophy from that which has always been the foundation of American education: educating the whole child. The curricula in many of these schools are narrowly focused on particular areas, such as science and engineering, performing arts, or business. It is certainly the prerogative of families to allow their children to “major” in particular subjects at the expense of others. However, just as with religious education, if parents choose to provide their children with alternative educational opportunities—those that differ from our agreed-upon public mandate for a broad, general education—then they should not receive public funds for doing so.
As an educator, I’ve known many home-schooled children. A few are fabulously successful—those who happen to have extremely well educated, highly motivated, and generally affluent parents who can provide their children with plenty of enriching experiences. Many others, however, arrive at adulthood handicapped by poor language, math, and social skills. Rather than encouraging parents to opt out of the public school system, we should fix the real problems in education that cause many parents to view all public schools as inherently inadequate.
Barack Obama’s focus in education would not be on making it cost-effective for privileged families to opt out but rather on helping all school districts meet the highest standards. His administration would focus on the two areas that research has shown to pay the biggest dividends in terms of student performance: early childhood education and reduced class sizes.
The biggest obstacle to improving American education in the past few decades has been a cultural problem that plagues every aspect of life in this country: a fundamentally oppositional, antagonistic taking of sides, which results in combat rather than collaboration.
This more than anything gives me hope that Barack Obama can help revitalize education: his ability to bring together people of many different persuasions in a spirit of respect and cooperation that focuses on solving problems, not defeating opponents. It’s the difference between seeking a win-win situation and a seeking a win-lose situation. In education, if anyone “loses,” it’s the children.