Friday, September 13, 2013

Hopeless Choice Part II (In the category of Want What You Have.) #52Weeks

No worthwhile society forms out of ignorance. If you don’t teach the children, how will they learn?

As promised, I clicked on “Ken Cuccinelli scandal” in the Google search, and while the details of impropriety, gift-taking, denial, and two-faced back stabbing are lurid, I’m not interested in giving them much thought. (Others have, if you are curious.) Corrupt politicians are cliché these days, and there are other, more pressing, issues -- K-12 education, for example.

In the interest of full disclosure, you should know that I come from a long, proud line of public school teachers: my mother, my father, my mother’s mother, my father’s mother, and my aunt on my mother’s side all retired from public school systems in three states (Virginia, Maryland, and New Jersey). I am mindful of what it means to be a public school teacher – what it pays and what it costs. My mother bore the costs for supplies to outfit her Special Ed classrooms (K-5, depending on the school or the school year). It mattered to her that her classroom was cheerful and colorful and filled with enough stimuli to keep her special needs students focused and engaged in learning.

The public school system in Virginia does not cover these teacher expenses, so my mother paid for the supplies herself. My sister and I had fun helping Mom pick out the colorful poster board and construction paper she would use to create bulletin boards for counting and letters and the calendar. Mom made her own Play-Doh® because it cost less (and tasted better).  My sister and I even gave up toys a year or two sooner than we might have otherwise. Mom would appeal to our altruistic sensibilities.

“These kids have no chance of a game (puzzle, slinky, Dressy Bessie doll…) like this at home,” she would explain as the battered Scrabble board (etc.) went into her “classroom” pile.  “You’ll be helping a child learn.”

As a career Special Ed teacher with 32 years before she retired, my mom undertook the same challenge every year: in 180 days time, could she teach her students to read, or, with the younger kids, tie their shoe, use the toilet – all the things I and my sister took for granted?  She believed she could; she tried her best. Mom would bring home photos of a super difficult ADHD kid with a severe learning disorder successfully finishing my favorite puzzles, grinning with pride. And I felt proud to have contributed to the progress – a small moment of hope that this kid might have a chance in the world, a chance to avoid being institutionalized by his frustrated and beyond-hope caregivers, marginalized, made homeless or irrelevant.

More disclosure: I am also a product of the Virginia Public School System, Grades 1 through 12. I attended a private school in Norfolk for kindergarten – my mother was the teacher, and my enrollment in her class was part of her benefits package. Call it on-the-job daycare or privilege; I don’t care. My mom was a great kindergarten teacher. (Where do you think I developed a taste for her Play-Doh®?) Anyway, we both moved over to the public school system the next year, I as a student in Virginia Beach, and she as a Special Ed teacher in Norfolk.

Mom’s retired now. I’m making good and productive use of my education with few complaints of my own. The Virginia Public School System has served us both well. So when Ken Cuccinelli revealed his plan for K-12 taxpayer funded education in Virginia, I read it with interest.  (One last bit of disclosure: I am childfree. The tax dollars I pay to support public education in Virginia are not utilized by anyone in my household, and I am totally cool with that. As my father once pointed out to me, “who wants to live in a town full of uneducated morons?”)

The Virginia Education Association doesn’t like this plan, and I respect their opinion in these matters. (Frankly, so should the damn politicians.) Cuccinelli’s plan includes measures to provide taxpayer - funded vouchers that allow parents to pay tuition at private schools and taxpayer financial support for religious schools – both tactics that succeed in nothing other than the funneling of my tax dollars away from the public school system that I rely on to ensure I don’t live in a town full of uneducated morons.

If you properly fund the public school system, there is no need to subsidize attendance at a private school. Wealthy parents retain, as always, the right to spend money on a private school for their kids, but a fully supported public school system provides the same quality of education – to all the kids, not just the rich ones. The same argument works against his plan to allow religious schools (also private) to receive public funds. Churches are tax exempt and contribute nothing to the tax-supported public school system. They should not be allowed to access tax dollars unless they are willing to contribute to the overall tax revenue stream. And the fact that a parent may choose to send their offspring to a private rather than a public school doesn’t exempt them from paying taxes earmarked for public education in this Commonwealth. If pressed, I am sure most would admit that they don’t want to live in a town full of uneducated morons either.

Cooch also wants to give parents the right to flunk school systems that under- perform (and presumably punish them with less or no funding), but he fails to recognize the fundamental truth that failing schools need more public funding, not less. His plan also ignores the reality that somewhat less than 100% of parents are actively engaged in their children’s education to begin with and are not qualified to judge the performance of a teacher or a school.

Public school, especially K-8, those years when children are deemed too young to be left alone, has become as much a daycare as an institute of learning. Teachers have become babysitters, yet at the same time the burden of ensuring that a child learns to read, write, and work sums falls solely on their shoulders. In too many households, parents either have no time or have no desire to help their children study at night, especially in lower income school districts where parents are often working more than one job just to make the ends meet. It’s bad enough we pay our teachers only marginally better than we pay our babysitters, but when we fail to treat teachers as the educated professionals that they are, do we really wonder why burnout drives the best educators away?

One of Virginia’s state delegates took the time to grade Cuccinelli’s education plan, and Cooch flunked. Virginia’s public schools need more support, not less, to reach the levels of academic achievement that ensure none of us are living in a town full of uneducated morons. Whether the Attorney General’s motives are self-serving or financially driven, his education plan serves only a fraction of Virginia’s school-aged children. We need to teach them all.

(If you are interested, Terry McAuliffe’s plan for education can be found here. Robert Sarvis’s is here. Sarvis thinks vouchers are cool too. Nothing in Terry’s plan bugged me, but that does not mean he’s getting my vote…hopeless choice.)

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