By Christine Beverly, Golden Apple Fellow 2008 & Golden Apple Academy Chair
Public school. Most people think public schools are just paid for by their public tax dollars. Full stop and end of discussion.
The word “public” does, indeed, mean funded by taxpayer dollars. However, it also means that the taxpayers have ownership. And with ownership comes responsibility.
We all know that owning a home is very different from renting one. When we rent a home, we hold someone else responsible for the upkeep of that home’s services. If the roof leaks, the home owner is on the hook to fix the roof. Home owners know that ignoring systemic problems in the home will lead to bigger costs later; investment in the home pays off.
Similarly, taxpayers are the owners of the public school system. They have paid for it with their hard earned taxpayer dollars. But they have a responsibility to keep that system running efficiently and effectively.
Too often today, the average citizen sees the school as a business, selling a product. They see their taxpayer dollars as mere capital, paid to set up the business, and the business should pay them back profits. And in capitalism, the market will close failing businesses and reward successful ones. This model for education doesn’t work; writing off failing schools means writing off the human beings that attend them, which is something we can never do.
Instead, taxpayers are responsible for seeing to it that their investment in schools doesn’t waste away from neglect. Once upon a time, schools were community centers. Neighbors surrounding schools took pride in the schools in their area. They would show up at the school athletic events. They would use the building for community meetings. They knew the teachers at the school and supported the school by advertising in its newspapers or sponsoring its teams’ uniforms. The school was owned by the community, and the community felt obliged to see that the school was operating as it should.
Sadly, this isn’t the attitude about public schools today. Often, when parents hear something bad about a school, they choose to transfer their child away from the neighborhood school. This is understandable: school choice is touted as a solution to all of public education’s wrong. This relieves us all from an obligation to see to it that the neighborhood school is fixed for the students who are there. We don’t see ourselves as owners of those schools; we merely see ourselves as consumers…as customers of those schools. And we all pay in the end. Public schools are left without community support. It’s as if your house has a plumbing issue, and you just decide to move to another building, leaving the plumbing unfixed. Yes, it’s out of sight, but the plumbing isn’t getting any better.
Public schools belong to all of us, and we all are obliged to see that public schools have public support. If schools are truly failing, then we are all at fault for allowing it to happen. At the very least, we should visit those schools and familiarize ourselves with what is actually happening there.
Community members can help to re-build our public education system into a world class system. It can be a financial investment, but there are other ways that we can fix what is broken. We can visit our neighborhood schools, and talk to their administrators and teachers about areas of need. We can volunteer to help in a classroom/library/office once a month. We can bring our talents to the school and offer to run a workshop/activity/club. We can offer to judge for science fairs or debate tournaments. We can attend the school events like carnivals and festivals. We can sponsor teams, support school fundraisers, or pay for a small ad in the school newspaper. We can attend PTA meetings. We can get involved with the alumni associations of our alma maters.
On the larger scale, we can attend school board meetings. We can get involved with groups that support education like the APS Foundation, the Golden Apple Foundation of New Mexico, or Project Graduate. We can ask to meet with teacher groups like the Golden Apple Academy or the New Mexico National Board Certified Teachers Network to discuss these complex issues and begin to identify solutions to them. We can talk to our legislators and keep them on the hook for addressing the needs of our schools, not just the assessment of them.
Part of ownership is joining into the conversation. It requires paying attention to what’s happening in our house, and getting the right experts in to fix it if needed. We cannot, as a society, continue to see schools as businesses selling a product…that is what “private” means. Our movement to a business model for schools has not yielded positive results. Public schools belong to all of us, and they are our shared responsibility. If we’ve got a failing school in our community, it means we’ve failed to care for it. Bring back the community school.