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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.


Additionally, white teachers are much more likely to center stereotypes about non-white families. When a child runs into a roadblock or issue, the parents are often believed to be uneducated and unloving to their children. Ronald Reagan's made-up stereotype of the "Welfare Queen" continues to be perpetuated in the classroom.


A recent article in Slate magazine by Ranita Ray shared these examples of her months observing in a local school.


"Again and again, across 15 different classrooms and multiple special courses—such as computers, music, and physical education—and over three years, I witnessed the cruelty and indifference with which white teachers treated students of color. When one Black boy gave a gentle hug to his white fourth grade teacher before leaving for lunch, she spoke loudly, “Oh my god, don’t touch me [rubbing her fingers up and down the arm he had hugged]. You touch too much, Michael.” As Michael walked away, still within earshot, the teacher said to me, “He touches too much. Constantly hugging. Probably doesn’t get love at home. But it’s weird and scary sometimes.” Michael lowered his eyes and sprinted out of the classroom.


No child should be treated like Michael. But no amount of academic stardom spared Black and brown students from cruelty—not even Nazli, a Black girl in the fourth grade whom teachers and friends referred to as a “math genius.” Calculations came easy to Nazli, and her classmates envied her skills. However, that all changed after her baby sister’s sudden death. Nazli wasn’t interested in math anymore, and her grades dropped as she grieved her sister. While grading one of her assignments in class, her white fourth grade teacher said to me: “She really hasn’t been doing well. I get it. Life can be hard. But it’s grit we need. Not sure you’ve seen that TED Talk? No matter how much I teach, grit is key.”


This wasn’t the only time that I heard about “grit” in the schools. Teachers underlined how hard work and "grit" can get students “anywhere you want.” When Marianna’s father was deported, she was asked to summon grit to continue doing her schoolwork. While the classrooms had posters all over with Spanish language text to make sure “students feel seen” and sense that the school “values their culture,” as one teacher told me, teachers didn’t shy away from using words like illegals and said nothing about the cruelty of deportation and borders. In talking about the necessity of grit and willpower in school, and equating height discrimination to racial discrimination, teachers signaled to students that racial discrimination is a relic of the past."

This all adds up and contributes to burnout, especially in non-white teachers who because of structural racism that has built up wealth in many white families, allowing those teachers to access family support and help.


Since the pandemic, teachers are "walking out on their jobs, citing higher stress, increased work, and a lack of respect." A team of researchers found that; "there are more than 36,500 teacher vacancies in the nation. They also estimate that there are more than 163,500 positions filled by teachers who aren’t fully certified or are not certified in the subject area they’re teaching. “That’s a substantial number of students who aren’t being served by a qualified teacher," research team member Tuan Nguyen said.


In our school system, elementary and high school is where students obtain base levels of knowledge in English, Mathematics, Art (in some places), and Science. College is where students learn to extend those skills into critical thinking through deeper exploration of subjects like Economics and Civics. In November of 2022, twenty-two members of the House of Representatives were serving with only a high school degree.


Across the nation, the answer in many districts to all these concerns is to provide vouchers allowing students to attend private and parochial schools with lowered-costs. Yet, these schools do not need to follow any of the guidelines of public school districts, often employing teachers with no training or education, and little classroom experience. These schools also continue to discriminate against LGBTQ+ families, with dozens of students kicked out of school each year because their family structure does not represent the "school values."


Right now, this nation has many issues and concerns we need to address. Education must be one of the first. We need qualified and gifted teachers in our classrooms. We need a reduction in costs for post-secondary education, and we need to stop funding our sports programs before we pay living salaries to teachers. We must provide student loan forgiveness, not because it benefits a few, but because we need better educated citizens to rebuild the things that are broken in the United States.


If we want to change, we must first restructure our schools and the systems that support them to provide better teachers through better salaries and that support students without entrenching politically-motivated gimmicks like Florida's recent "Don't Say Gay" and anti-CRT manifestos.


All students deserve an education, and we must put an end to stereotypes, false beliefs, and the inherent racism that continues to cause discrimination against Black, Indigenous, Hispanic, and Latino/a/x teachers and students.


The philosopher Epictetus said that, "only the educated are free." Until we invest in an educational system that serves all, the people of the United States will never know true freedom.

 



kfr, 2023


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