Dear America: It’s time for education reform

As I understand it, “The American Dream” is based upon the idea that you can come to this country with nothing, and with determination make something of yourself. People immigrate to the USA on the hopes of ensuring a better life for themselves and their families, and I’m sure that across the board most (if not all) first-generation American children born of immigrant parents are strongly encouraged to focus on their education as the path to success. With knowledge comes empowerment in the form of better paying job opportunities, which ought to lead to an overall improved quality of life. This sounds great, right? Education as the path to success: this would logically mean that America ought to place a high emphasis on education, and if education truly mattered as much as we want to believe it does, we would have a literate populace, and poverty would not be the issue that it is in this country (the link between illiteracy and poverty has been established, for more information click here).

If you truly believe that education is the path to success, then logically, as a parent you would do whatever you could to ensure that your children have opportunities that feel you did not, right? Which is why these two recent new articles upset me so much, I sympathize with the plight of these mothers. One mother in Ohio was working on her own educational goals to improve her family’s lot, and she gets jailed for doing so. Another mother in Connecticut, who happens to be homeless, could also be sent to prison for trying to get her son into what is considered a good school. Granted, the argument against these women goes along the lines of they were stealing money because the public schools draw their funds primarily through property taxes, but that’s a fundamentally flawed way to go about equalizing education.

Although Brown v. Board of Education declared the “separate but equal” mode of operation for our school system to be unconstitutional, the fact of the matter is that just because the law says it’s illegal, unless changes are made to fundamentally address the root sources of poverty (click here for another good link about the connection between education, literacy, and poverty) we’ll end up with the world we’re presently in: happily propping up a system of institutionalized segregation. The school systems remain stratified along measures of wealth, much as they always have because those who can afford an education are able to access it, and those that cannot, do not. The disparity between rich and poor thus grows ever greater, and even more noticeable with the passage of time and the issue becomes the multifaceted problem that faces us today.

Before you jump down my throat, I’m not saying that social mobility is impossible. To quote Pam Oliver, a professor in the UW-Madison sociology department, “If your ancestors cut down all the trees, it’s not your fault, but you still don’t live in a forest.” So yes, there have been some improvements, but it would be wrong to accept that what we have now is perfect and does not need improving. Granted, many people that are wealthy are so because they worked hard to accumulate their wealth, and they do deserve to reap certain benefits. However, as a society we’re also able to recognize that certain things are within the realm of the common good, such as our military. We pay taxes in the hopes that if and when there is a need for it, the military can step in to protect us, and we hope that it will not discriminate against us based on how much we have paid for it in our lifetime.

Thus the main problem that I see with tying funding for education with property taxes is that we end up viewing access to education as a common-pool resource, which is just the wrong lens to be viewing education. To draw analogies, education and good schools ought not be like pies, where my slice will shrink if more people can have some. We would be better served viewing improving education as if it were a rising tide, and thus all of our boats would be lifted in the process of making improvements. An educated populace is undeniably a good for society, and even if we all don’t and won’t aspire to become eminent scholars in our chosen field, or lawyers, doctors, or rocket scientists, as a society we ought to expect and strive to have a baseline level of literacy and mathematical competence. Why? The answer is simple, really. Education begins first and foremost in a child’s home, and if your parents or primary adult caregivers are unable to assist you because they themselves lack the education, it’s terribly and tragically difficult to find the answers yourself.

How do I know? Primarily because that’s my story. My parents (and grandparents, who played an undeniably crucial role in my upbringing) knew an education was the path to success. However, they’d lacked the access to it in their lives, and thus were uncertain and oftentimes unable to answer the plethora of questions I had about just about everything. As far as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to know the reasons and rules for the world I find myself in, and the only logical way I saw to get the answers to the myriad of questions in my head would be by asking them. It deeply frustrated me when everyone around me had essentially tired of my inevitable “But why?” to every explanation offered (I think the phrase I must have heard most often growing up was “curiosity killed the cat” — leading me to both feel very sorry for that poor cat and hoping it at least had eight more lives left). Whereas a less inquisitive and tenacious child would have let things end once the adults were exhausted by their line of questioning, I felt that the answers had to be somewhere just beyond my grasp. Which is why I took to reading like a fish takes to water, it has been the greatest epiphany in my life knowing that once I got the hang of reading, I could get the answer to any question I could ever possibly have — I saw the power contained in the written word was that it was a methods by which we as a species have been capable of transmitting information and knowledge to each other for centuries. The lightbulb turned on for me, but it doesn’t for far too many, which is why something needs to change. There is no reason for darkness when we have the potential to harness fire at our fingertips.

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