This post includes examples that are specific to Georgia. I suspect
that circumstances in other states are similar.
In the past 20 or so years, I’ve seen two themes predominating in conversations, studies, and opinion pieces about education: 1) we aren’t preparing our kids for 21st century jobs; and 2) American students are falling farther behind students from other countries.
Before I share my thought about those topics, though, let’s take care of the elephant in the classroom: vouchers and school choice.
Currently, Georgia has a voucher program for special-needs students and a tax credit program for people or businesses that donate to private school scholarship organizations. Those scholarships go to families whose kids couldn’t otherwise afford a private school. That all seems very straight-forward. The only taxpayer money for education in Georgia goes to public schools or to families of children with special needs that cannot be met by public schools.
Here’s where it gets sticky. In every recent state legislative session, laws have been proposed that would greatly extend the voucher program. In Georgia, educating a child for one public-school year costs around $9,200. If one of the Republican-sponsored “Education Savings Account” bills became law in Georgia, any family, regardless of financial or medical need, could claim $4,500 from that per-student allotment and spend it however they wanted on their child’s education. The money could be used toward private-school (including religious-based schools) tuition; but it could also be used for homeschooling or music lessons. Just about the only requirement is that the student not attend a public school.
That “school choice” money would come directly from public school budgets, and this is what happens when you strip money from schools: the schools get worse. Student outcomes get worse. Teacher salaries stagnant or fall. School buildings deteriorate. Materials and technologies fall farther behind.
Writing about one of these Education Savings Account bills in 2015, Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist, Jay Bookman, said, “We have schools in this state that haven’t been able to keep their doors open for 180 days a year; we have schools in which band and music programs have had to be slashed to the bone or even eliminated. And we’re going to divert state taxpayer money to finance private piano and violin lessons for private-school students whose parents would be paying for such things anyway?”
While many people, including me, think these unlimited voucher bills weaken public education, in 2015, Georgia state representative Mark Hamilton (R-Cumming), said they offer parental choice. “We are giving a menu of choices to parents. This is not an anti-public school system bill.” But Maureen Downey, also writing in the AJC, says that the bills are extensions of “the fallacious argument that ‘the money should follow the students because it’s their money.’ It’s not the students’ money. It’s not the parents’ money. It’s the community’s money. Taxpayers contribute to the common cause of public education because they believe it’s a collective responsibility to educate the next generation for the good of all.”
It’s fine to say a family can take their voucher and go to a better school. Let’s look at that. The average tuition for a private high school in Cobb County is $9,581; in Fulton it’s $15,291; in DeKalb it’s $19,880. A family that can already pay that tuition doesn’t need state money to do so. A family that can’t make up the difference between the voucher and the tuition isn’t going to send their children to one of those schools. Suppose there is a relatively inexpensive private school the child can attend, but it’s a long way from home. The adults in the house have to get to work every morning. No bus lines run near the home. How does the kid get to the affordable private school? Certainly, in some instances all the pieces will fall into place, and a child can go to a school that better suits her or his talents, interests, and needs. But make no mistake, these Republican-sponsored voucher bills aren’t designed for those few students; they are designed to further weaken our public schools and further entrench inequality into our State.
Most of us agree that K-12 education should be controlled by the states, not Washington. However, this current administration has entered into the voucher debate by naming a foe of public education, Betsy DeVos, as the Secretary of Education. She intends to extend school vouchers to allow more kids to go to private or religious schools. This is entirely in keeping with a statement by President Trump that public schools are “a government-run monopoly.” Moving it into the federal sphere of influence, as President Trump and Secretary DeVos have done, gives our elected representatives opportunities to challenge the elitist thinking that traditional private schools and religious schools should benefit from the willful destruction of public education.
Now that I exposed the Republican thinking behind so-called school choice, I want to give you my thoughts on job preparation. I agree that we haven’t taught our students what they need to succeed in 21st century jobs. That’s not, however, because we don’t teach coding or have robotics competitions or organize cooperative learning experiences. We do all that, in some schools. What I believe we don’t successfully teach in K-12 is thinking. Too many students come to college ill-prepared to derive, analyze, and synthesize information to form new thoughts, to develop new concepts. Innovation – a cornerstone of 21st century success – requires those higher-level thinking skills.
For the second concern, students not performing up to their peers in other countries, the statistics are clear. Here’s what the Pew Research Foundation found. “One of the biggest cross-national tests is the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which every three years measures reading ability, math and science literacy and other key skills among 15-year-olds in dozens of developed and developing countries. The most recent PISA results, from 2015, placed the U.S. an unimpressive 38th out of 71 countries in math and 24th in science.”  That is more evidence that rote learning and teaching-to-the-test isn’t working for our kids.
Here are my thoughts about these two factors, and some suggestions for what we can do to turn these around. The median salary for a public school teacher in Roswell, Georgia in 2017 is around $55,000. Entry level requirements for teaching jobs in most states include bachelor’s degrees, teacher training, testing, and licensure. I compared the teacher’s salaries and requirements to those of Certified Public Accountants. The requirements for those jobs are similar now, though they weren’t always.
In a quick search in online job boards, I found listings for two CPAs in Alpharetta, Georgia. The starting salaries, depending on experience, were between $69,000 and $100,000. The salary for an experienced Roswell teacher with graduate-level degrees tops-out at around $75,000.
If we think our children should get the best education possible, let’s recruit the best teachers and pay them accordingly. The problem isn’t with teacher training, and it isn’t with the people who choose to enter an underpaid, often thankless, frequently micro-managed career that places unrealistic burdens on them to manage too-large classes while teaching their subjects to too many students who didn’t learn or retain knowledge from previous school years.
In addition to improving teacher salaries, let’s take a look at the curriculum. I am a fan of the humanities, of liberal arts. We cannot produce caring, involved, compassionate, thinking people if we do not give them ample opportunities to understand how people in other parts of the world live and have lived – and how those experiences affect the current political and economic conditions. It’s a cliché, but that doesn’t make it less true: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Also, I think music and art should be funded at the same levels as athletics. I’d recommend spending more on libraries than on stadiums. And let’s have pep rallies for the Chess Team. I’m not being facetious. I believe that spending so much classroom time teaching children to pass tests in math and science is less important than spending that time giving them encouragement and opportunities to explore broader interests and disciplines.
Why do I think that art, music, history, language, chess, debate, volleyball might be as important as chemistry and algebra? Because I don’t think everyone should have to go to college. Or rather, I don’t think kids should feel that the only marker of success is going to college. For some students, like me, college was exactly the right choice. For some of my friends at Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, D.C., a two-year vocational training program would have been the best choice. Other classmates would be happiest moving directly from high school to jobs. I have a friend who tried to go to college – twice – right after graduating from high school. She says now that she wasn’t ready. She got a job. After some years, she went back to college and earned a B.A. and an M.A. Not all of us can, or should, follow the path others set out for us. Let’s build an educational system that gives students the necessary tools and values to make choices about their futures, whether that means college, vocational school, or a job.
I’d like to see our elected and appointed officials:
- Ensure that the Federal government provides support to States for preparing our children for 21st century jobs. These actions from Washington should include both stick & carrot encouragement to make educational opportunities equally available in all communities.
- Support federal- and state-subsidized job training programs for experienced workers and tuition-free vocational-technical schools for qualified young people who don’t want to go to a four-year college. Also, take student loans out of the hands of for-profit corporations.
- Waive student loans for public-school teachers and teacher’s aides.