DK with some of the young leaders she works with at PS20 in Brooklyn.

Dump public education to buy more bombs?

President Trump wants to shrink federal support for our public schools by nine billion dollars to help inflate his defense budget by 15 billion dollar to protect our democracy against terrorism. But isn’t a solid public education system the first line of defense for any democracy? All that’s good follows a good education.

Calculating the financial gamble

President Trump wants to eliminate all the buttressing that supports our public education. For instance, he would eliminate after school programs in high poverty schools also known as the 21st Century Learning Grants. He would whittle away at Title I individual programs (i.e. support for kids of poverty). He would obliterate Title II programs (i.e. funds used for a variety of purposes, from recruiting and retaining teachers to reducing class size or providing professional development) also known as Impact Aid support payments. Medicaid that special education of students with special needs rely on would also be severely cut.

In addition, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos thinks the federal government should allow for vouchers or scholarships so that parents may pick and choose the school their child attends: public, private, charter, or parochial. While freedom of choice is a high ideal, this seems to be blatantly elitist. How could vouchers or tax credits possibly cover tuition in a private school? And since only public schools are required to hold to an agreed upon standard, moving kids to schools without this agreement would only weaken the national school system. The vast majority of kids in the US — 50 million of them — currently attend our public schools. Of those children 50% (or 25 million) live in poverty and are limited in the schools they can attend, economically and/or geographically. Right now, since we ensure all kids have access to a public school with relatively strong standards, all children are given a shot at reaching their true potential. Trump wants to take that away from the most vulnerable children.

What have been the benefits of our public education?

There are many amazing schools and also troubled schools — whether public or private — in our country. But one big distinction is that only public schools have to follow a state curriculum which reflects what 21st century learners must master to become successful adults. To maintain this standard many, if not most, public schools require their teachers to have a higher degree and rigorous teaching experience which ensures quality teaching. In states where unions protect teachers’ rights the integrity of the teaching profession is itself protected.

On the other hand, many independent, private charter and parochial schools may innovate quickly. But that also means loosening or reinterpreting what a good education is. For instance, some private schools don’t necessarily have to include science, math, writing, reading and/or social studies in their curriculum. A private school may only teach how to curtsy and pour tea if it wishes. Some parochial schools don’t teach English.

In addition charters and private schools have no mandate to teach children with learning challenges or disabilities whereas public schools must welcome all children even those with whom they struggle. This inclusion has proven to be, in fact, enriching: 95% of students with special needs are currently taught in a regular public school classroom. Where would these children be taught (or would they be taught at all) if we destroy our public schools?

Also some private and charter schools don’t think its necessary for teachers to have teaching degrees. Schools without unions can hire/fire staff at will and impose very long work days and low wages on teachers. There is no accountability for quality of teaching for these schools on a state or federal level.

Charters often give a promise of a turn around for a neighborhood in distress. The aftermath of Katrina in 2005 provided the opportunity to cause the strategic implosion of the New Orleans public school system: 4,500 teachers of color were fired practically over night. Without any coordination or consent from the community, all school administrations were replaced with young, unseasoned teachers and others brought in from outside the communtty. NOLA schools are now almost 100% charters. The data on strong improvement that is often touted seems manipulative. For instance before Katrina, the Student Performance Score threshold was 75. After 11 years of charter schools that threshold was just lowered to 50.

Moving from a public school to a charter system in New Orleans may have seemed like a miraculous education turnaround but, at the very least, it seems like a disaster since it eliminated the cultural DNA their public schools had provided. By trying to solve a perceived problem, the authorities who orchestrated this takeover created several more.

Public ed is on the upswing

Our public schools have shown many improvements in the past decade. Test scores are up. School suspensions have plunged. The number of grads going on to college has risen significantly. The gap is narrowing between white and nonwhite youth succeeding in school. Teacher / student ratios have improved. Teen pregnancies are down. But many schools have a long ways to go. And higher risk children still tend to drop out in middle school if they don’t see the relevance to them. But we have to approve solving these big hairy problems using the critical thinking tools we wish students to have, don’t we? To do this, we need financial support from the federal government.

Getting caught in the justice system

What would a child do with less than an eighth grade education? What kind of jobs would they be able to get? Even though we’ve seen reductions in prison populations, the pipeline to prison is filled with kids who, having left school, turned to dubious ventures for income and got caught in the justice system; kids futures are often desperate and hopeless without a good education.

A full 70% of prisoners lack a GED. And the annual cost of keeping one inmate in prison is between $25,000 and $168,000 depending on location. Since the US currently provides $12,500 per year for a child’s education a child that doesn’t make it through school and becomes incarcerated costs us, at a minimum, twice what it costs to keep them in school for each year they are in prison. This causes a drain on our economy while keeping kids motivated to stay in school could be a boon.

And, of course, as anyone who lived though the bad old days of New York City, Los Angeles or Detroit can attest, the costs of high crime are devastating and incalculable. If we watch the public schools backslide or worse, crumble, our overall sense of insecurity and the divide between the haves and have nots will become cavernous as crime climbs back up.

Even with the improvements I’ve cited in our public schools we have a long way to go before we reach stability. Kids need to see school as relevant and engaging. This means investing more, not less, in our public schools.

So the potential — to eliminate poverty and therefore strengthen America — depends on strong support for our public schools. But if, in fact, DeVos gets her way: we could see a nose dive in all the gains we’ve made and see a huge increase in economic and social costs. The fabric that is our democracy will shred.

My family’s legacy

My family rose to join the upper middle class in the 20th century. We all benefited from the entitlement of a free public education system. I’m a 70 year old white female. My two sisters and I as well as most of my cousins went to public schools in the 1950s and 60s. Our parents, uncles and aunts and grandparents before us all attended public schools.

Along the way we got to know many families who also benefited from a public education, families that represent the cultural, racial crazy quilt that is our United States. And we are all living proof that the first line of defense in any democracy is a solid public education system.

That all else that’s good follows.

Journalist, design thinker, champion of children as citizens.