Failing at Education.

by Chuck Ramsay

For a brief moment I wanted to slap the self-righteous smirk off her face. Except that’s not me. I don’t believe violence solves anything. And, anyway, this person didn’t realize that she was flaunting her white privilege and showing her ignorance of the reality of being poor. She was oblivious.

The subject of education had come up, and I can’t for the life of me remember how we got on the topic. She was almost a stranger to me and there are some things I rarely discuss with people I do not know very well. That’s also just me.

I’m an unabashed city dweller. So, when I commented that the St. Louis City Schools were finally improving, having recently been re-accredited, but that they had a long way to go, and I also said it was a shame that so many poor kids were being denied the same quality of education and access to resources as suburban school children, the shit hit the fan. My normally optimistic and hopeful remarks became a huge affront to this person.

“Well, it those people want a good education for their children, they should do something about it themselves, like we did,” she responded defensively. “They just don’t care, so why should I?”

My inner Ralph Kramden was waking up. I had to suppress him. Thank you, Alice.

One has to consider that I live in St. Louis, a metropolitan area where people often ask where you went to high school, an innocent enough question on the surface, but below really a test of one’s racial, social and financial background. Here they also rate and rank people by the zip code in which they reside. This information is key to determining the size and type of home you own (or rent), your social pecking order aspirations, your income level, often your race, and whether the questioner should feel sufficiently superior to the answerer, see them as somewhat of an equal, or maybe even someone to envy.

Here’s what I wanted to tell her but didn’t, because I could tell she was not open to having a reasonable conversation: All kids deserve a good education. It’s not their fault who their parents are. I certainly had no say who my parents would be when I was born. We have to stop punishing children based on the station their parents currently inhabit in our society (good, bad or indifferent).

She said it plainly when she told me, “My husband and I work hard. We bought our new house in our area because it has good schools. We pay a lot of taxes for this (privilege) and if anyone doesn’t like their schools, they should do the same.”

Why I said what I said about making excellent educational opportunities available to all children EQUALLY – no matter which zip code they live in or where their parents went to high school, or didn’t attend: I don’t think we should penalize children for any situation they were born into, rich or poor. Just give them an equal start, equal opportunity. But, the reality is, in our country today, we tend to criminalize poor people, in that there “has” to be something wrong with them if they are poor. After all, if they are poor, they must be doing something wrong. But that thinking doesn’t take into account everything our society has done to keep them in their place – one of those is by not giving them the same high quality education our white kids receive, redlining of neighborhoods by realtors and banks and others to keep people of color out, restrictive lending so poor people who somehow start to climb out of challenging circumstances cannot go past “GO.”

Of course, this also ignores the systemic public policies that make it difficult for certain peoples (mostly those of color and lower education levels) to be hired for all kinds of jobs, get to those jobs (transportation) from where they live, and sustain that employment (thanks to some of our municipal court practices). When poor people do find employment and advance through their hard work, we’ve made it difficult to move out of their deprived neighborhoods for a better life. And, not having the advantage of real estate to bequeath to the next generation, clearly inhibits the accumulation of wealth that white folks enjoy (though they often take for granted).

In the State of Missouri, schools are funded through real estate and property taxes. But it is not one big bucket that gets divided up among all school districts. When there is white flight from one area to a suburb, the money that once funded that school district moves with those fleeing racial integration. Two good examples would be the Riverview Gardens School District and the Normandy School District in north county. Both were once good districts churning out college bound graduates. Today they are struggling based on lower tax revenues from a poorer population.

And, please do not jump to the conclusion that the students following them were any less capable of learning. They are not.  It’s the funding that crashes after white flight that puts these districts in situations where it becomes difficult to hire the best teachers, maintain school buildings, provide full curriculum and after school extracurricular activities, and more.

School districts, such as Clayton, in St. Louis County, which is known for its excellence, is one that has it all: A population of $1 million and higher valued homes, a large County Seat business district, and other revenue streams that assure “their” kids have what is needed to give them a first rate education.

This system is not fair. And, that is not good for all of our kids or the society that it creates as a result. My kids are long grown and have children of their own. Yet, I don’t mind paying taxes for good schools because I realize that it makes where we live a better place to live – for all people. But the current system that “divides” school districts by class and caste is not only not sustainable, but it unfairly punishes those who need a better education most.

Here are the choices white folks have to assure their children get a good education: They can move to a school district where property taxes are higher and/or has a tax base that better funds their schools. It may make for a longer commute for the parents, their taxes will go up, and their kids get better schools, if they can afford that route.

Another option is to send your children to private schools. Many families do this for a variety of reasons. In this scenario, you continue to pay your taxes that go to local school districts and take on the burden of paying tuition to the private school. St. Louis has long been known for its many private schools, and it’s not unusual for many generations in a family to have attended the same private schools.

Some white folks cannot afford to move or send their kids to private schools. In those cases, many attend public schools.  Sometimes that may be a charter school, a type of public school run by a private company. In my opinion, the jury is still out on charter schools. History has shown, to me, that any time you privatize a public function (fire departments, schools, water departments, etc.), there is the opportunity for quality to go down at the expense of generating the profit that a private enterprise must have to reward the owners. Higher profits usually come from cutting overhead, which in the case of schools is usually labor (teachers), building maintenance, or resources for the students.

Poor citizens, obviously, don’t always have the same options, especially if it means out-of-pocket expenses for tuition, transportation and the like. While charter schools are available to many of the poor families, getting your children to school may not be easily accomplished if the family doesn't own a car, can afford daily public transportation, or the parent's work schedules make it difficult to deliver or pick up the children.

The school desegregation plan has allowed many inner city students the opportunity to attend better schools, but their numbers are small compared to all poor kids. And, ironically, the extra cost for busing and sometimes hiring taxis to get these students to their new schools comes at the expense of their “home” district and is money that could have been used in their neighborhood schools that are already hurting.

But, there is a way to satisfy the needs of the struggling middle class family and the disadvantaged poor family with regard to their children’s education and futures. Why not put all the State real estate tax money into one big bucket? Then share it evenly per student, so to speak, keeping in mind that the well-to-do shouldn’t have to lower their educational standards to do this.  For example, if the Clayton or Ladue School Districts spend $X per student today – for buildings, teachers, and so forth – then make that the “standard” by which we educate all children. If that is what others think is necessary for the good education of their children, it should be what is good for all children. The inner city schools are older and may need a bit more for maintenance. But, overall, by allocating equal investment in all our children, we can do what is right for our future citizens.

So, I also wanted to inform my newfound friend that if we can do this, educate all our kids better, they will stand a better chance of getting jobs, getting along with each other (yes, the white kids have a lot to learn about their minority counterparts and they will be the better for it). With better educations at a slightly higher cost to all of us, we can spend less of our other tax money on prisons and social services. We can all stop moving further away from a problem we perceive, but doesn’t have to be. We can once again have neighborhood schools that enrich all of us and reduce blight, crime and other remnants of systemic racism. Instead, I just ended our conversation there. I didn't want to argue. She would not have understood or accepted my belief in our children's education. So, I'm hoping you will.

The hardest part will be to change how we think about education for all children, not just ours. To begin to think about why we should want to help others who may not be just like us – how we look, how we think, how we hope. For my evangelical friends, that shouldn’t be too difficult if you truly believe what’s in the Bible. There are many good lessons there.

For others, perhaps some adult education will be needed to teach them how racism and injustice hurts us all in the end. For the very rich, perhaps the most difficult challenge, will be to get them to be less greedy, less selfish and to realize that the inequality of income we are now experiencing in the U.S. will eventually harm them more than help them. We are already seeing the fruits of the seeds of greed in that more Americans can no longer afford the goods and services the rich rely on selling to acquire more wealth. When ordinary folks can no longer afford those goods and services, “business” will diminish and income for all will dry up.

And, when fewer people are educated, they don’t get along as well together. Crime goes up because when you’re jobless, you have to find someway to feed, clothe and house yourself.

Yet, if we are a more evenly educated group of citizens, not only will be get along better, but we can develop new businesses with our knowledge and know-how so we don’t have to depend entirely on the very rich to control how we live or don’t.

Equality takes many forms and affects us all in different ways. Our nation was founded on the principle of equality and by denying some a good education based on today’s formulas for funding is not only unjust, but it is harmful to everyone.

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