Posted by: MC | June 7, 2010

Graduation Season: Your Tax Dollars at Work

“It will be good change when any person in the country
has a right to get a good public education and to go
as far as they want in advanced education.”
Sue Klapstein

It’s that time again.  May and June – when here in the U.S. the landscape is dotted with the cheers and colors, the pomp and circumstance of graduation ceremonies.

Across the country schools, families and communities take the opportunity to turn attention to the young learners among us – to recognize their accomplishments as people who think and create, who solve problems and innovate, and who stand as the next wave of citizens to tend the wellbeing of our country and world.  We cheer for the graduates.  At the same time, we also celebrate or at least acknowledge the importance of schooling itself.  Our excitement in this season of graduations is evidence of our agreement that education links directly with the stability and productivity of our nation.

Anticipating May and June of 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau offered the following statistics in the summer of 2009.  The 09/10 school year would see a projected 56 million American students enrolled in the nation’s elementary through high schools (grades K-12).  Of those 3.3 million would graduate in the late spring … the ones we’re celebrating now.  Graduates from college were anticipated to number 3.2 million with a predicted total enrollment of 19 million in the nation’s colleges and universities.  That number is up from 5.5 million from 20 years ago which seems a good indication.

Also, check this out.  The numbers of high school and college grads are pretty close.  That’s good, too.  Obviously people can’t complete college if they haven’t somehow met requirements for high school graduation.  So, it stands to reason that making K-12 schools work for the 56 million is vital.

Ok, so if you divide 56 million by the thirteen grade levels that number represents you get 4.3 million.  Hmmm.  Somewhere along the line we’re losing a million learners by the time graduation rolls around.  That’s almost 25%.  We call these young citizens drop outs. Our drop-out statistics are usually taken from the senior classes – the number enrolled at the beginning of the year compared with the number graduating.  So the statistical story we tell ourselves about drop out rates is limited only to the students who make it to their senior year.

Here’s another variable.  In recent months, there’s been a growing call among the adult citizens of this country for tax relief.  That call has been focused and amplified by a group calling themselves the Tea Party.

In a democracy, we listen to one another.  We also apply the education we’ve received to continue educating ourselves. The public discussion of where all the money goes is legitimate and important.  That money is hard earned by individual citizens.  Then part of it – what feels like a pretty huge hunk of it – gets allotted to taxes which are distributed from there to public services at the local, state and national levels.  We the earners ought to know the how and where of this allotment so taxation feels like a reasonable, needed, and even willing contribution to community wellbeing.

Education is one of those places where public money is spent.  And, at this point when we’re losing one of every four learners before high school graduation, it’s not working as well as we might like.

Many of the EX:Change voices spoke to issues of education.  Late in February of 2009, in a Starbuck’s in Jackson, MS, I asked the man sitting next to me whether he’d heard our new President make his first address to Congress the night before.  That began the conversation that led to Kim Ward becoming one of the 100 EX:Change voices.  Kim is a radio talk show host in Jackson.  He is a man who has had a rich lifetime of experiences including 15 years as a close follower of Minister Farrakhan within the Nation of Islam.

More recently, he has rejected most if not all of Farrakhan’s ideology and come into a quite distinct place of leadership.  Although I did not register the meaning of his allusion at the time, Kim Ward mentioned during our conversation that the next day he would be attending an inaugural meeting of a group called “The Tea Party.”

Among the wide range of issues Kim addressed that morning was education.  “I’m looking for change in the education of black children,” he said.  “Obama has proposed in the budget that’s going to be voted on in the next couple of weeks to no longer fund charter schools in Washington, DC.  In Washington, DC the public schools are primarily black.  He’s going to deny these kids opportunity for a good education all because he wants to help out the NEA (National Education Association), the teachers’ union, one of the coalition members that got him elected.  This is irrespective of the fact that it’s hurting all these kids that he supposedly worked so hard for on the South Side of Chicago.  What I would consider a sign of positive change would be for him to stand up to the NEA and these other organizations and say, ‘Look, our kids are suffering.’

“I’ve said this before on my radio program.  We need leadership, particularly black leadership that will stand up for black kids to the coalition members of the Democratic Party:  the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), and the NEA.  It is insane for African Americans, particularly African American leadership, to watch a 50% dropout rate year after year and do nothing about it.  Every decade since 1960 our graduation rates in the black community, for Americans in general, but in particular African Americans have down.  They think the status quo is acceptable.”

Kim then mentioned a recent and invasive drug house bust by the Jackson police that targeted black youth.  “It goes back to what my complaint is with the NAACP, the NEA and ACLU as it relates to charter schools and allowing our kids to get a good education.  If you allow these kids to get a good education, selling drugs may not be the only option they have.  The ACLU, the NAACP and the NEA will sue on behalf of the prisoners up in Parchman, our state prison here, to provide them living conditions or an extra 3 or 4 square feet of exercise room.  But those people might not even be in prison if they were allowed to get a good education in the first through third grade.”

A week later I was in Decatur, GA on the town square at yet another Starbucks.  Two black business men in their early 30 sat together talking.  The energy of their conversation had a radiance to it – like a vivid sunrise or a waterfall full with newly melted snow.  Really.  I know I can get a bit overly metaphoric, but these guys were shining.  They looked my way, smiled big inviting smiles and soon became two more of the EX:Change voices.

TC and Kelvin.  They both had exceptionally clear things to say about motivating youth, and community leaders into creativity and productivity that benefits them as individuals and the community as a whole.  Kelvin spoke most directly to education.

“Overall our system has worked brilliantly, because America is a great nation.  But when it comes to education and when it comes to the poor people and even the middle class people, I’m not sure the decision makers much care how they get along in this world and what happens to them.  The education system is one of the biggest problems due primarily to how funds are delegated.

“I have a couple of friends that are teachers.  They can’t get black kids to read in school.  They think they can’t read, mainly because they’re reading about subjects that don’t interest them.  Not all kids but a lot of the kids that aren’t doing well get cast aside as unintelligent, or not capable, or not trying.  But it’s that they’re disinterested because what they’re being expected to learn doesn’t relate to them.

“It’s amazing this day and age that we don’t realize that people really aren’t participating in this society unless they decide to make a change.  If you never make a conscious decision to make a change, you’re sleepwalking through your life doing whatever you think you should be doing.  Education wakes you up.  It gives you exposure to possible changes.  Since we know this, why aren’t we offering opportunities?

“If you’re a lawyer or your mom’s was a lawyer, chances are all your kids are going to be lawyers.  If you’re a drug dealer or you work in an auto parts store, chances are, guess what’s going to happen?  We know this happens, but we never try to address it – to take people from this situation and move them to this situation – to help each other out.  It’s like you’re on you own.

“If you’re from an environment, whether you’re black, white, rich or poor, where nobody teaches  you anything you don’t understand change and end up sleepwalking through life.  It’s incumbent on us to stop this.  We can start helping people when they’re kids.  We don’t have to wait until they’re 18 or 19 and acting in ways we don’t want anybody acting.

“We don’t come out of the womb having negative thoughts. But there’s so much negative going on in the world that if you don’t inject your life with positive thoughts then the negative thoughts are going to be what you take to be the world.  Both of them can’t occupy your mind at the same time.  You have to purposely inject your mind with positive thoughts.  That’s a big part of education.”

Then there are these two voices of veteran educators.  Back in Portland at the end of April I met with Sue Klapstein a 40 year educator in pulic schools (EX:C blog, “Community:  A Change from the Disconnect,” 4-26-2010).

“Truly equal educational opportunities are a priority,” Sue said.  “We don’t have that now.  It will be good change when any person in the country has a right to get a good public education and to go as far as they want in advanced education.  It’s important that is established and doesn’t change.  It sounds kind of hokey, but I do think education is the way for all children to have access to better lives.  They can get farther in their lives if they have a good educational foundation by being taught how to read, taught about the world and how to get along with one another.  I’ve always thought that was school’s main job:  You learn to read and you learn how to get along with other people.  That’s it.”

Early in the road trip, I spoke with Terry Gutkin, a career-long professor in the science and practice of psychology in the schools.  He’s currently on the faculty of San Francisco State University after being raised and attending college in Brooklyn, completing his PhD with the University of Texas, and serving the faculty of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for many years.  His is an academic perspective, but also one of a Jewish man raised in a working class urban home in the middle of the last century.

“Being in the education system professionally as a psychologist,” Terry began, “I can see that if our education system doesn’t improve, this country is going down the toilet.  That’s all there is to it.  We cannot survive effectively in our current world without strong education.  When we destroy our education system by refusing to invest in it, we are dooming our country to being a third or fourth rate nation in every sense of the term.  Why do we do that?  Because people who are older with their kids grown up don’t want to pay taxes just to support education because there’s nothing for me, me, me, me.”

If these four people were in a room with one another, they could find lots to disagree about.  They come from different parts of the country.  They lived and were raised in different circumstances.  They support different political positions.  Reading again what they each said about education, I’m convinced that with a bit of time and a bit of listening to each other they could – together – identify ways, both intelligent and powerful, for addressing the challenges they all see.

How do our tax dollars work?  What can be done to improve American education?  These are both good and urgent questions.  There’s another question of equal urgency that comes again and again from the EX:Change voices.  How do we pool our vision and innovation across the things we all want?

As people around the country considered change in early 2009 a vast yet untapped resource was profoundly in evidence:  the wisdom of everyday people.  What if we made ways for listening and acting together toward real change – change like that voiced by these four U.S. citizens as they spoke of education?  What if, as individual citizens and as a country, we educated ourselves to practice that kind of democracy?

It’s no small privilege to live in a place where we can do that kind of thing.  Seems, too, to be a big part of what we’ve been meaning by “change.”

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