Things Fall Apart. Will Public Education?
I have been worried about public education for a long time. As a teacher, the long nights and weekends I spent creating and customizing resources, along with the thousands of dollars I spent each year buying classroom supplies, copy paper, books, winter coats, and even food for my students eventually led me to turn my attention to school finance: Why were there never enough resources for my students? And why was it always on me and my overworked, underpaid colleagues to make up the vast difference?
My past eight years working in school finance have painted a more dismal picture: pension liabilities and rising benefit costs are crushing district operating budgets; enrollment declines and an increasingly fractured school landscape are chipping away at economies of scale that help districts thrive; operational technology is decades old, as are most funding formulas (which still prioritize equality over equity); and federal regulations for special-education services, special populations, assessment, reporting, nutrition and transportation have all increased without commensurate funding.
Public schools cannot rely on martyrdom and self-sacrifice to keep staff and students.
If that weren’t enough, we have also tasked school districts with shouldering the burden of so many American failures: widespread poverty and the housing and food insecurity that comes with it; mass incarceration which leaves 1 in 10 Black children without a parent; gun violence and trauma; inadequate and inequitable healthcare; structural racism, and the digital divide.
The center cannot hold.
For a fleeting moment in March, I had hoped that all of these disproportionate responsibilities on educators would be laid bare and people might actually care. Instead, we piled on the absurd assumption that districts were now also responsible for subsidizing computers, internet, and food for hundreds of thousands of households across the country.
The $250 per student stimulus from the CARES Act was negligent and insulting. The message from our government is clear: the United States does not care about public education.
Critics of public education will say that public schools have plenty of money but aren’t spending it well. This argument and the constant pleas for more funding are typically construed as dichotomous positions, but two things can be true at the same time. School districts are woefully underfunded for their charge, and strategic management and equitable allocation of dollars is severely lacking—across public education specifically and the public sector generally.
The tragic irony at the crux of this debate is that much of the actual waste in education stems from districts being afraid to spend money or limited by misplaced accusations of malfeasance. Consider the fierce resistance superintendents have faced when trying to introduce 1:1 technology programs over the past 20 years, only to be excoriated for not having them in place last spring. Without the capital to invest in modernizing mid-20th-century buildings, districts are forced to spend billions every year on maintenance backlogs and band-aid solutions. Administrators often spend months or years of staff time doing menial work by hand or building solutions in-house with old, ill-fitting technology with the notion of “saving” money. This paradox is particularly vexing because time is often treated like an infinite resource when in fact there is no time to waste.
The perpetuity of public education is not a foregone conclusion. New choices are popping up for parents every day: charter schools, virtual schools, micro schools. The status quo is failing far too many children. Parents, teachers and administrators are voting with their feet; their exodus from traditional public schools is destructive to the system but ultimately rational behavior. Public schools cannot rely on martyrdom and self-sacrifice to keep staff and students.
The United States has an embarrassingly bifurcated system of haves and have-nots in healthcare, and public education is rapidly spiraling toward the same direction. I am typically an optimistic person but I fear that a “hopeful 2021 outlook” for K-12 public education would be an extreme disservice to the educators who are struggling under the crushing weight of an under-resourced system and to the students who are persistently failed by our national complacency.
Things fall apart. Will public education?
This op-ed is part of a series of year-end reflections EdSurge is publishing as 2020 concludes.