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The Slow Death of Public Education

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.

- Nelson Mandela

There are 26,727 high schools in the United States. Only seventeen percent of those schools currently offer classes in all four art disciplines, a total of just 4,543 schools. Comparatively, there are more than 16,000 high school football programs and over 17,000 basketball programs.

Ask the coaches of these sports programs and they will tell you it is because they help self-fund their programs in a way that arts cannot. Yet, schools in this nation currently spend over $165,000,000,000 on their sports programs, not counting the $670 - $1000 families with athletes spend themselves. In fact, most schools spend three times more on athletic programs than they do on basic educational costs per student. Too often when school districts face budgetary shortfalls, they cut teachers and services before firing the football coach.

There are certainly benefits of sports for youth, even aside from the obvious health and wellness. They seem to promote slightly higher wages post-high school, in part because athletes learn to be both a team player and to be open to coaching and guidance from employers. Both sports and art seem to lead to students who are more engaged, perform better on standardized testing, and who are more likely to go to college. Yet, art programs continue to be the first thing cut.

Yet, schools are supposed to be about education, and around the nation - too many schools are failing in that primary purpose. A lot of that continues to be because of shortages of qualified and dedicated teachers, and much of that is economic. Montana, the state with the lowest starting average pay for teachers, has an average starting salary of just over $30,000. The cost to earn a degree in education to live on campus at an in-state public school is now $25,707 per year or $102,828 over four years. Since 2020, the cost of a degree is over 80% up.

Many older people in this nation (Gen X and Boomers) continue to resist student loan forgiveness, claiming that they paid back their own loans or had family support. They fail to realize that the average cost of yearly tuition has outpaced inflation by 171.5% over the past twenty years. Going back further to 1989, the cost of a four-year degree living on campus was $4,975 per year which comes out to $19,900 - over $5,000 less than the cost of a single year today.

Going back to Montana, the state with the lowest starting salaries, the living wage is $16,32 per hour, or $33,946. A newly certified teacher graduating from either of University of Montana or the Montana State school system could not afford to live in the state - even before paying anything toward loans that helped them get their degree. At the same time, even assistant high school football coaches in the state make a median salary of $36,106 per year.

Additionally, false beliefs continue to be perpetuated regarding teachers and their salaries.

Some insist the lower pay is valid because teachers only work nine months per year, but that is no longer true, and it ignores the fact that in most cases teachers during a school year do not work a forty hour work week, but closer to fifty.

Classes in most districts run Monday through Friday for 7.5 - 8 hours. But teachers must be in the school before the earliest students arrive; many stay after school to meet with students or other faculty; and they then have to grade papers and tests that their students have completed. Factoring in these extra hours, new teachers in Montana make just $14.42 per hour.

Summer vacations for teachers are much shorter than those of students, and student summer vacations are rarely longer than two and a half month. Most districts require teachers to work at least a week of two before school starts in late summer and that same amount after school ends each spring. During the month or two that teachers have off, they are required to revamp curriculum and take any continuing education requirements to remain certified - meaning they are working. They are also required to take vacations during that time. For some, they do not even get that much time off. Instead, they are one of 1,707,347 teachers recruited to teach summer school to help students who are struggling catch up. Those who insist that lower teacher salaries is justified because teachers can just get a part-time job or a side job in the summer miss the reality that few employers want to hire someone for five or six weeks.

Teaching continues to be very gendered. Seventy-six percent of K - 12 teachers in 2015-2016 were women, but women only make up 55.4% of teachers who become principals or others administrators with higher paying jobs. Men often get promoted first, even when they have less experience and less education. Across all levels, female educators make around 90% of the salaries of their male peers - better than in other fields, but certainly not equal pay for equal work.

Educators often fail to represent the ethnicity and race of the students they teach. In 2020, 57.8% of the nation were non-Hispanic white people. Yet, 72.3% of all teachers and 68.1% of all school principals are white. In many areas, a student who is not white may never see a teacher who looks like them inside a classroom until they reach college.

This has a drastic impact on the education of students who are not white. While the media focuses on things like Critical Race Theory, a college-level curricula - not K-12, white teachers and administrators bring their bias and racism into the classroom. Reports of teachers who willfully refuse to learn to pronounce their students' names or who interject things like Black History Month (every February) with complaints that there are no White History Months continue to make students feel unseen and unheard, even as they hang up diversity posters. Guidance counselors and teachers both continue to push white students into college tracks and all others into post-graduation careers that do not require a college education. Black and Brown students have to do twice as well as their peers to get the same doors opened to them.