Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Ten Miles Away and a World Apart

By BAT Chris Hartel

I’m a certified teacher in one of the poorest urban schools in my state. Our school ranks near the bottom by every measure except in the number of students on free or reduced priced lunch, chronic absenteeism, and the percentage of immigrant students who are new English Language Learners, where we are near the top of the list.

My building is filled with teachers who bring their “A" game to work every day, who reach deep into their own pockets to fund their classrooms, because they work in a decrepit building with a non-existent budget, few supplies, and malfunctioning and outdated equipment. They reach deep into their own souls to stand against the overwhelming tide of poverty and despair that constantly undermines everything we do. We are bereft of resources; our students speak more than 18 different languages, yet there are only two English Language support specialists here. Art, music and other “Specials” are virtually gone, there are no tutoring programs; I could go on, but suffice it to say that my school has very little to offer its students, many of whom will not graduate. Of those who do, distressingly few will go on to college, and our graduates can expect a much lower earning potential than students from neighboring towns. My students do not come to school with the expectation of academic success.

Barely ten miles from where I teach, there is a brand new, 85 million dollar high school, fully staffed, equipped, and ready. Each day its students arrive and are buoyed by all the support that money can buy. If a student there has trouble learning something, no resource is spared to help them. Their parents likely have advanced degrees, and have experienced academic success themselves, so even if they can’t help their kids, they can afford to hire tutors who can. The students at this wealthy school have been steeped in the expectation of success since pre-school, and most of them will go on to college and high earning potential for the rest of their lives. So why are my poor, urban students less deserving of opportunity than their wealthy, suburban neighbors? The accident of birth that separated them by ten miles.

I recently listened to a podcast of Real Time with Bill Maher. One of Bill’s guests was the conservative author Ann Coulter. Her comments implied one of the most pernicious lies in modern American politics: The idea that poverty is somehow a character flaw, that if you can’t just pull yourself up by your bootstraps and be an avatar of the American Dream, then you are somehow unworthy. My students did not ask to be born into poverty, any more than one can ask to have brown eyes, or brown skin. They are every bit as deserving of an education as their rich, white suburban neighbors. I realized that we as a society are content to allow this lie to fester because it excuses us from having to address the shocking inequality that our current system allows. We are experiencing a slow-motion, national catastrophe as we allow generation after generation of poor students to be robbed of opportunity. This must stop. Fortunately, there is a solution.

Schools in this country are funded by local taxation, with some support from state and federal monies, but the lion’s share of the operating budget comes from local taxes. In our neighboring towns, where the median income is high, funding an $85 million school is a reasonable proposition. In this city, where industries have been evaporating for decades and what’s left behind are brownfields, bodegas, nail salons, and a predominance of rental housing, the local tax base cannot support the educational system. This has led to all sorts of horrific austerity measures year after year. Now, our emaciated schools being prepped for budgetary surgery once again, even though there’s nothing left to cut.

There is only one entity that has the money to close the gap in funding of poor districts; the federal government. Financing our schools must become a national priority, and we must relinquish the idea of local control of school funding. This must be done urgently, and in an ongoing way. It took generations to get us here, and it won't be undone in a day. All our children deserve equal access to the opportunity that a good education affords. The only entity with a purse deep enough to cover the cost of public education is the federal government. The arguments against this are all rooted in the lie that poverty is a personal choice. People don’t choose to come to my impoverished school; they come here when there is nowhere else for them to go.

Whatever happens, my fellow teachers and I will crawl to the finish line this year and go home for the summer, where we will try to make up for lost time with our families, to rest and recharge so that we’re ready to link arms and stand against the tide again next year. It would be nice to know that society has our backs. Write your representatives and senators; tell them that school funding needs to be administered by the federal government, and not drawn from local coffers. Because that ten miles shouldn't be so hard to cross.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with Chris Härtel. See this article: http://www.usnews.com/education/blogs/high-school-notes/2011/05/25/us-can-learn-from-other-countries-education-systems
    Why does US continue with this crazy local funding of education?