With school bells set to ring soon across the nation, the debate over how to fix our “failing” public schools will once again heat up. Pundits across the political spectrum continue to peddle their cure-alls for what ails our education system. Some savants still harp on the notion that if we keep testing more, we may find something of value to teach children. Others have picked up on the far right’s continuing assault on organized labor, especially in the public sector. Smash the teachers’ unions and all will be well, they promise. Somehow that recipe has not worked in North Carolina—we deny teachers (along with all public employees) the right to collectively bargain and wind up with one of the nation’s lowest rates of per-student funding for education. Seems like those evil teachers unions are interested in not only their own paychecks but also in adequate support for all schools.
The insistence that “the market” is the answer to all our problems—despite stark evidence to the contrary in the past five years—had led other crusaders to demand that the private sector take over entire school systems. Give those “educational bureaucrats” a taste of old-fashioned competition, they proclaim, and we will whip them into shape. Charter schools spring up and then wither just like so many corn stocks in our drought-stricken heartland; and venture capitalists often flee from their start-up schools when they discover that public education (like so many “public goods”) rarely earns big bucks.
Virtually every plan to help our public schools seems doomed to failure because none of them acknowledges a fundamental historical shift in education. We are now striving to educate literally millions of poor children who in past generations might have barely ventured into a classroom, let alone graduate from high school. More than half a century ago, this nation ostensibly embraced the principle that schools should not be racially segregated by law, and implicitly made a commitment to provide a quality education for all children regardless of color or caste. The question remains, however, whether we have ever really understood what it would take as a nation to fulfill that pledge of education for all.
This effort to encourage children to stay in school and graduate is not only a statement of moral conviction; it also makes for sound economic and social policy. In a nation where low-skilled jobs—especially in the manufacturing and agricultural sectors—have become scarcer, dropping out is now often a path to no work at all. Investing in education from pre-K all the way to universities pays off in increased productivity and tax revenue from better-skilled and better-paid workers.
The challenge remains to keep poorer children in school and on a path to high school graduation. These children often enter the classroom behind their peers in language acquisition and social skills because their parents have fewer educational and economic resources to draw on. As poor children advance in their schooling, they often require more than free lunches; they need access to medical and dental care, mental health systems, and even basic needs like a roof over their heads.
The most effective strategy for student success is to prevent high concentrations of poor students in any school so that academic and support services are not strained to the breaking point. That basic goal, however, is becoming more difficult to achieve as middle-class families continue to flee urban and rural school systems for the suburbs or private “academies.” Even large school systems that span many diverse neighborhoods—such as Wake County—face increasing resistance to their efforts at preventing economic (and racial) re-segregation.
Short of a renewed commitment to diverse public schools, which seems to be lacking in so many districts across the nation, we need to face the educational and economic costs of high-poverty schools. Many students in these schools have basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter that go beyond the classroom even as those necessities impinge on the learning that takes place there every day. Schools have to help meet those needs if they are ever to have a chance to keep those students in school and on track to graduation. This strategy is not “throwing money at a problem,” it is an investment that brings necessary support structures such as health clinics and social services right into the schoolhouse.
All the testing and plans for privatization will continue to fail miserably unless we recognize the facts that have been staring us in the face for decades. These are not the schools of our parents or grandparents, they are the classrooms of the twenty-first century filled with students we have pledged to educate and not throw on the scrap heap of ignorance and poverty. We need to fulfill that pledge with political will and yes with money too.
Dr. David A. Zonderman is a Professor of History at North Carolina State University.