I think everyone has heard the expression, “You have champagne tastes and a beer budget.” Well, that is exactly the American mindset these days. I will qualify my remarks by stating that for the past four years I have worked as a teacher in the primary grades at a public school. Not only that, the particular school is in the poor section of a blue-collar city. The kids, for the most part, are absolutely wonderful. The majority of them are of first or second generation Hispanic background. The next ethnic groups are Brazilians, Haitians, people from India, and Tibet. The caucasian population of the school is around 20% or less.
Four years ago this school suffered a devastating fire that displaced the students to two other aging schools. Both of the buildings were built in the 1930s. The students are still a year away from occupying the rebuilt school. The reason for the long delay is mostly political but under the guise of financial. To be certain the city does not have the financial means to build a new school quickly, but the state has more red tape than is reasonable. Unfortunately, occurences such as this are not unusual for America’s cities. To really understand the challenge you must look only at the city proper and not its extensive suburbs. What is the economic background of each city? What does its tax base look like? What does a cross-section of its inhabitants look like? All these factors, and more, actively feed into each city’s ability to educate its young.
You can go to the Federal Government’s census site and see a map that shows the distribution of wealth by city in the U.S. What you will find is the central large cities and their immediate suburbs, as a rule, have significantly lower wealth than its more distant suburbs. This is important because the ability of any municipality is directly tied to its wealth. The Federal Government and the individual states do take measures to mitigate this inequality but it is still very skewed.
To fairly evaluate each community it is necessary to consider the challenges the face each. In Massachusetts, Sherborn, a community of 4200 has a median income of $186,000 while Lawrence, a city of 70,000, has a median income of $36,600. Lawrence has a school population of roughly 19,000 while Sherborn’s is roughly 1,400. Lawrence is a distinctly Hispanic city while Sherborn is populated mostly by people whose first language is English. What does that have to do with anything? Simple, by law communities are tasked with providing an education that addresses the needs of its student base. If that base is comprised by a large number of students who have English as their second language, it adds a level of difficulty.
This is just one of the many problems faced by schools located in America’s cities. These are problems that the far suburbs and rural America do not experience. obstacles such as poverty, transportation, child care, crime, are just a few of external issues cities deal with. But they also have to build modern facilities with good educational tools, computers, labs, books, and attract the best staff possible are huge obstacles to America’s cash strapped cities.
In considering the quality of education any one student receives, you must first consider what is that student’s educational environment. Is the building that student enters large enough, and equipped well enough to meet that student’s needs? Or is it overcrowded, broken down, and out-dated? Does the community have the funding level to compete with other localities in the state in attracting the best teachers available or must it rely upon something less? To put a point on that last question, consider that most school districts require that its teachers obtain a master’s degree within a certain amount of time from hiring, if they do not already possess one. The average salary for someone with a master’s degree in excess of $75,000. The average salary of a teacher with a master’s degree is $50,000. That is a serious problem! Even more, consider the fact that someone with a master’s degree in math can command in excess of $100,000 why would they opt for something less, or, why would they not consider their options outside of teaching should they become disenchanted?
The thing is, this whole political argument about how education is failing our children is very disingenuous. The problem starts mainly with those in politics failing to accept that they themselves have set unreasonable standards of education given the level of funding they are willing to commit. It is similar to saying “Here is $25,000. I want you to go out and bring back a new Cadillac.” How is that possible? It quite simple is not! The offer that a voucher system will resolve such problems! Really? Same level of funding but changing the distribution model, how does that improve education?
America, if you want your kids better educated, if you want all Americans better educated, you have to stop kidding yourselves that there is any equality in the quality of education from one locality to another. And before you can expect a better education system, you are going to have to address each and every problem urban educators are faced with.