Good Schools for Every Kid

No matter where she goes (like Bethune-Cookman), Betsy DeVos can’t catch a break. Some of that is backlash to her connection to Trump, something arguably out of her control. For me, she represents a total failure of too many leaders to make any real commitment to our children.

I’ve written a lot about why school “choice” does not exist for many students. A 15-year-old girl who arrives to school late every day because she must roust her hung-over parent from bed in the morning is going to the neighborhood school, no matter how many “choices” her alcoholic parent is offered. The kid who is the fallback childcare provider for a two-job parent is going to whatever school he or she can run to as soon as Mom or Dad walks in the door from the night shift in the morning. There are more kids like this than we like to think about. The more “choices” we spread limited resources among, the fewer resources for kids who are not merely not “born on first base”; they were born miles from the ballpark.

But it is legitimate to ask why children who can take advantage of choice must be “stuck” in “failing” schools.

I have that question, too. I just think the answer is to fix the schools. I also think the real reason we haven’t is because it’s neither cheap nor easy, while turning the mess over to charters is, relatively speaking. At least, it doesn’t cost us any more, and we just leave shaping the future to charter companies, despite the fact that many are not run by educators and there is too little oversight of them. Some charters get excellent results (especially when they are filled with kids born on first base), while others do worse than neighborhood schools. Statistically, it’s a crapshoot. Like I said, no real commitment from our leaders here.

The thing is, the problems struggling neighborhood schools face are not insurmountable, and contrary to popular belief, educators and their unions can do a lot to help. Never forget, educators are their unions, as these are democratically-run organizations. Educators understand the root causes of low achievement in schools, and their voices are vital to finding solutions. Beware leaders who vilify teachers’ unions; I promise, their agenda has little to do with providing a quality education for all. Educators, on the other hand, directly benefit from good schools, because a student’s learning environment is an educator’s work environment. Engaged, optimistic, healthy children are a joy to work with. Oppressed, hopeless kids in the classroom every day shatter their teachers’ souls.

As for solutions, take Rhiannon Wenning and her colleagues at Jefferson High School: The Jefferson articulation area is one of the most challenging areas in Jeffco. Eighty-five percent of its student body is economically disadvantaged. Transience and language barriers are both huge obstacles for many kids. The myth is that the worst teachers get stuck in schools like this, where they sit around doing nothing while kids’ futures are destroyed. The reality is that Jefferson area educators and the community have banded together to create a community school. They have examined the root causes of what prevents students and families from being successful and determined the real needs—things like language classes for adults, healthcare access, job assistance, childcare. This community is working together to make Jefferson High School a hub of the community where families can get help with all of these things. The concept is called a community school, and I am proud to say that my union has supported this effort. I am so proud to call Rhiannon my union sister. She knows her kids don’t really have a choice, so she’s working her butt off to make sure the school they have is the amazing one they all deserve.

Right now, this isn’t costing a lot of taxpayer money, but the fact is that Jeffco schools need more resources. Up front, I know people don’t want to have to pay more, but the payoff comes later, when kids who would have languished in prison on the taxpayer’s tab or ended up on public assistance have the education and resilience they need to become adults who contribute to society. Make no mistake; many of the strongest national proponents of school choice are also proponents of private prisons. They invest in both. They are the ones who gobble up your tax dollars, first through unaccountable for-profit education management companies, then through private prisons for the kids they leave behind.

This next bit is going to make people grumpy. Please keep in mind, I’m at the end of my career. What I’m about to say is of no benefit to me. Sooner or later, Colorado is going to have to face a basic business reality (which should be right up the alley of those who insist schools should be run like businesses). You have to pay for talent. Sports teams know this. Large corporations looking for CEO’s know this. Tech development companies get it. It’s true of teachers, as well. The number of students in college teacher prep programs in Colorado has declined by almost 25 percent in the last five years. That may have something to do with teacher salaries declining 7.7 percent in the last ten. Real commitment to kids means addressing this problem—another thing unions try to accomplish and for which they are routinely vilified.

I truly believe that if everyone in America either made the commitment Rhiannon and her colleagues have made, or at the very least supported the efforts of educators and community leaders like her, every school could be worthy of the children who walk through its doors.

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Paula is an author of historical fiction as well as a wife, mom, and teacher.
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