A purple school van delivers preschool lessons and health care to isolated Wyoming children and their families. Indiana ninth-graders attend a summer program designed to smooth the transition to high school. A rural California district provides Wi-Fi on school buses, then sends those vehicles to low-income areas so students who live there can do their homework after school hours.
Day after day, public school leaders and educators perform acts of heroism. It’s not the kind of heroism that makes headlines or gets social media attention, but it’s heroism, nonetheless.
Still, some pundits claim that America’s K-12 public education system is broken. Tear the system down they declare, and hand the schools over to for-profit racketeers who claim to guarantee success.
I have devoted more than 35 years to public education, working alongside and advocating for school leaders and their communities. Public education is my life’s work. I am here to tell you: Public education is not broken.
If the system were broken, would we have historic high graduation rates at the same time we have the most rigorous academic requirements? Would 80 percent of graduates go on to two- or four-year colleges and universities? That’s an amazing achievement, at a level unimaginable just a decade ago. A child who speaks only a little English learns to read in English – that’s not failure. A child with dyslexia improves his comprehension on a reading test – that’s not failure. Multiply these successes, these victories, by the millions, and you have an accurate picture of what public education is accomplishing – every hour, every day, every year.
There are challenges, to be sure. Alarmingly, more than 16 million children – 22 percent of all children – live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty. That’s more children living in poverty today than during the recent recession of 2008, notes the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Public schools are neither daunted nor disillusioned by these trends, taking all children – those who come to kindergarten already reading and the children who have never opened a book or had one read to them. The native English speakers and the children who have never spoken or read a word of English. The children from stable middle-class homes and the children whose only meals are those they eat at school. The children with genius IQs and the children with severe disabilities and behavioral issues. Public education takes them all.
Public schools have made a social contract with all of our children. Educators understand that if children don’t have their basic needs met, they cannot learn. So schools go far beyond academics by providing food and clothing, health care, and more. They help parents find social services, and offer English and GED classes and other training.
Public education has played a significant part in lifting generations of people from lower to middle income, and from middle to higher income. And, public schools have enormous potential to elevate even more children and their families out of poverty – but schools cannot do it alone. A societal commitment to solve the problems of poverty is needed. Sadly, childhood poverty and racial disparities are hardly discussed by elected officials, and these issues have been mostly absent from this election year’s political debate.
At the same time, budget cuts and legislation promoting vouchers and other programs that divert essential funding from schools, along with the reluctance to invest in public education, continue to undermine the amazing work taking place in what is arguably our most valuable institution.
The recent passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the landmark legislation passed by Congress last December with strong bipartisan support and signed into law by President Obama, holds great promise to support the work of public education. Among other things, it shifts more decision-making back to state and local education leaders, where it belongs – giving them a stronger voice in creating education policy and programs that will make a difference in their communities.
Let’s invite honest and ongoing conversations about how we can improve public education. Let’s learn from the successes and reforms across the county, and work to address the challenges. We owe that to the 50 million children who walk through our public schoolhouse doors every day.