The Case for a Renewed Focus on Our Children’s Foundational Years

Summary, Because I Know I’m Long-Winded

The story of education in politics for the past decade has been money, teacher pay, charter schools, vouchers, class size, deceit, and bickering.  Somewhere in there, doesn’t it seem we forgot that education was about our children?  It seems like it to me.

This document focuses on the most important years of a child’s life, the elementary school years.  It’s their foundation, and you’ll hear me say that word a LOT within the main document.  Why?  Because how are we valuing all students’ foundational years when we take teacher assistants out of their classrooms?  How are we valuing their foundational years when we “push them on through” to the next grade without mastering the basic standards of reading, writing, and math?  How are we valuing their foundational years when we water down all the many pathways to a child’s education?  If we can’t do public education, charter schools, and vouchers well, can’t we do ONE of them well for at least those six years?  Can’t it be the one required by our state Constitution?

This document talks about the need for a renewed focus on the elementary years and the possibility of incorporating other educational avenues once we have given our children the most important thing we can give them:  an unrivaled foundation.

Full Document Below is a 13-15 Minute Read

I want you to think back to a song you may have heard a long time ago in church called, “The Wise Man Built His House Upon the Rock.”  Do you remember what the guy was called who built his house upon the sand? Foolish. It came from the Sermon on the Mount that can be found in the Book of Matthew.  Even if you don’t give a darn what the Bible says, can we all agree that the song and the message are 100% correct and that there is really no way to dispute the basic lesson of the song?

I mean, you can get into semantics and talk about the dude on the sand driving down steel poles into the bedrock or the guy on the rock not having a proper drill or masonry screws for securing the house to the rock, but don’t be that person.  You and I both know that’s not the point. The point is that foundation is everything, and for the most important people in our lives - our children - their foundation is getting sandier by the year.

A lot of talk and legislation recently has focused on something called “School Choice,” and I’m going to show you how that can be a good idea, but not in grades Kindergarten through fifth grade.  Just hear me out. I’ve been teaching high school math and exceptional children for eight years. My proposal actually does nothing to help me in the short term. I have three kids and absolutely LOVE the idea of them getting the absolute best education possible.  For me, it’s ONLY about the kids.  For them, it’s not ONLY about the foundation, but the rest is pointless if the foundation is broken or unfinished.  It’s our job to make sure it’s not.

A wise man builds on a strong foundation, right?  A foolish man builds on a weak one. It works for almost anything.  To be a professional athlete, you have to be really solid at the fundamentals to become phenomenal at the sport.  If your feet are not well, it affects the health of your entire body. To go to the moon, a rocket will never be built until the meticulous planning is done.  Everything MUST have a good foundation to be successful, and that is especially true for our children.

There are a multitude of reasons this can only be successful with public schools, not the least of which is the difficult-to-overlook fact that the North Carolina Constitution states, “The General Assembly shall provide by taxation and otherwise for a general and uniform system of free public schools, which shall be maintained at least nine months in every year, and wherein equal opportunities shall be provided for all students.

It says nothing in Article IX of the North Carolina Constitution about vouchers for private schools, many of which are awarded to families who plan to attend religious schools and therefore should not be allowable because of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and the religion clauses.  It also says nothing about Charter Schools, which have a knack for being something called “White Flight” schools. Neither of these opportunities satisfy the “general and uniform system of free public schools” clause of our Constitution, and it most definitely doesn’t satisfy the “equal opportunities shall be provided for all students” clause.

What the North Carolina Constitution does NOT specify, however, is how long these public schools should be guaranteed to our children.  But the first six years should be more than guaranteed if we see our children as our future and not our burden.  Kindergarten through fifth grade (hereinafter K-5) should be fully - and I mean FULLY - supported without fear of much needed money going to vouchers and charters that do nothing but water down EVERY educational avenue.  K-5 should be NOTHING but public schools unless parents can afford private.  Period.  But again, hear me out.

Why “School Choice” Can’t Work for K-5

First, let’s again address the need to eliminate the argument for “School Choice” in grades K-5.  If we look at what the Constitution dictates, charter schools are easy enough to cross off the list of “uniform” or for providing “equal opportunities” for a few simple reasons.  The amount of oversight and accountability legislated towards charter schools is next to nothing. As a school board member told me recently, “We basically just send them a check and we have no idea what they do with it.”  In a bubble, where everything else is equal, maybe that’s okay. When combined with every other reason they’re not functioning with equality in mind, that’s just not acceptable to me.

Another reason charter schools don’t work with the Constitution?  I work at a Title 1 high school with about 29% white population. (JoCo Report, 2018)  The charter school across the street, which offers no lunch and no transportation?  They have a 67% white population. Literally across the street. That’s called “White Flight.” They purposely don’t serve lunch or provide transportation to eliminate the very low income students.  That just won’t work. That is not “general and uniform” nor does it provide “equal opportunities for all students.” That is intentionally segregating schools and paying for it with everyone’s tax dollars, and if it happens in only one town in North Carolina, that’s one town too many.

Private schools cannot qualify because vouchers paid for with taxpayer money should not be offered to religious schools.  That is blatantly unconstitutional. They also won’t work because if a student is on the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder, and the state gives him a $5,000 voucher to go to his nearest private school with a $7,000 per year tuition rate, that child will STILL not be able to afford it.  

Do I think private schools should still exist?  Absolutely. If you can afford for your kids to go to private school, have at it.  But don’t patronize those students who can qualify for a voucher for half the cost of private school, knowing good and well that they can’t afford the other half and they can’t guarantee transportation to get their children there either.

Lastly, in order for those two options to be deemed to offer “equal opportunity for all students,” there would have to be a public, private, AND charter school located within a reasonable distance to ALL students in the state of North Carolina, and all of them would have to offer lunch, exceptional children’s programs, athletics, transportation, etc.  That’s simply not possible. You want to talk about funding for THAT? That would be astronomical. We’d also have to ensure that every corner of the state had comparable internet access for those people that “chose” to do virtual school.

The ONLY fair way to do this (and the cheapest since it’s the only way to insure some semblance of equality) and likewise enjoy the benefits of a society with superb education, is to make the ONE educational avenue guaranteed by our Constitution GREAT, because education can never be great if someone other than our children is profiting from it and it can never be great if we are offering so many avenues to education that NONE of them are any good.  We MUST make public education in grades K-5 a priority. Here’s how:

Trim DPI Way Down and Eliminate the State Superintendent Position

I actually propose cutting backroom support positions from both the state and county levels.  The money that pays for excellent education is taxpayer money, and the way it is spent needs to be heavily scrutinized so that children benefit from the ones who TEACH them daily.  That means all the big million dollar plus contracts have to go, too. I don’t think any company offering an intellectual property that our teachers can develop should profit off of education.  Teachers, especially veteran teachers, know what the heck they are doing. If you asked a team of third grade teachers from across the state to spend their summer coming up with the reading assessment that will be used for the next five years, they would be thrilled to do it.  We would have to pay them for their time, naturally, but it would save about eight million dollars. And that’s only one example. There are dozens more. Once again, I believe the only people profiting off of the direct education of children in our public schools should be the children.

We have seen in the past three years that the State Superintendent position is not necessary.  I won’t get into the reasons here, but feel free to research it and see if you think we couldn’t find a better way to spend $125,000 (not to mention an expense account that probably dwarfs the salary.)  Don’t you think that all we need on the state level is a State Board of Education filled with ex-teachers and administrators to advise the General Assembly? If you split the state up into ten regions and elected one member from each region and gave them $5,000 a year for their troubles, you’d have retired educators lining up for those positions.  Why? Because they gave their LIVES to education. It’s who they are. They will die calling themselves educators.  

And you also just saved $75,000 - $200,000-ish.  And any state contracts that need to be procured could easily be taken care of by these veteran education professionals, and I can guarantee you they would do it in the most cost effective way possible.  They also wouldn’t require a night of wining and dining and a campaign contribution.

I don’t think DPI even knows how much they spend annually on standardized testing, but we can pretty much eliminate all but about two positions in that department.  Study after study shows that mass amounts of standardized testing does absolutely nothing to help students master their required standards and the results of the testing are about as reliable as that sand house from earlier.  So all in all, I’m guessing I probably just saved anywhere from ten to two hundred million dollars a year. I’d rather spend that amount of money on that solid foundation anyway.

And oh yeah, while we’re at it, let’s just scrap the Federal Department of Education.  I have no idea what they do, but Betsy Devos is more qualified to sell Amway than education, what with her zero years of teaching and whatnot.  And I’m sure the states could easily find good use (and similar programs) for that $67 BILLION a year that the Federal Department of Education was spending.

Find the “Per Pupil” Number and Then Send it to the Counties

In most data that can be found about the cost of living and affordability of North Carolina, we are typically right in the middle of all 50 states, so it makes sense that we would use the US average for how much we should spend per student for one year (and since we’re the ninth most populated state, that is being VERY undemanding.)  The most recent data I found (2018) for the average of how much all 50 states spend per student on public education was $12,756 (the median is $12,298, so I’d be fine using either number; it is also worth noting that we are the sixth LOWEST in spending per student.)

We’re not going over $12,000 per student in year one (not when we’re $3,000 short of that number currently,) but we can make a plan to get there in five to ten years.  So find that year one number and find a way to make it happen. The 2018 number for North Carolina was $9,367, which is $3,389 less (or 26% less) than the AVERAGE state in the US (Education Week, 2019.)  The ninth most populated state - a state yearning to bring in big manufacturing and technology companies annually - being 44th in student spending is abysmal and embarrassing. So we simply HAVE to find a number much bigger than $9,367.  But we’re going to pump a good portion of that money to the elementary schools so they can adequately build our childrens’ foundations. It’s the most important part of education. We’ll get to middle and high school in a bit. Also remember this: so far we’re only spending state funds. The county funds haven’t been touched yet.

Once we find that per pupil number, here’s my suggestion.  (And FYI, this is JUST an idea.  It might not be the right idea, but I know this much for a fact.  Life in Mecklenberg County is a lot different than life in Jones County.  The school boards in those respective counties might have far different ideas about how to spend their money rather than letting a bunch of legislators with zero teaching experience do it.  So again, just an idea.  Might not be the best idea, but I guarantee you it isn’t the worst.)  So here’s the idea: 

Give each county their money based on how many students they have each year and let them figure out how they want to spend it.  It’s simple and bipartisan and it puts the power - and the accountability - on the county to make the best use of every dime. I think some counties would amaze us and set the bar really high.  The integrity of teachers (I promise you, it’s high) means every other county would try to exceed that bar. They’d be empowered.

You would see counties getting rid of unnecessary positions, you would see them stop making up positions for principals that are tired of the school setting and just want to sit back and coast to retirement making $100,000+ per year.  I have no idea what else the man did, but we used to have an ex-principal who walked around our school checking to see whose air conditioning was working. You mean to tell me I can’t send somebody an email and let them know? This man was probably making $100,000 a year to be a thermometer.  

You would also see schools offering different resources for the school with 80% poverty versus the school with 20%.  You would see them offering supplements to teachers at the Title 1 school with the 40% teacher turnover rate because there are truly very few people on Earth who can handle those students.  And yeah, maybe some counties would find a way to pay ALL teachers more. Yeah, there are some retirement issues that might come up with that, but not if you treat anything over and above a suggested state salary schedule as a supplement or bonus.

And why would all this educational goodness happen?  Because the school board and lawmakers in each county intimately know the needs and desires of the schools and students in their county.  And a LOT of our counties want to be GREAT at public education. A bunch of mostly part-time lawyers in Raleigh have no idea how to run schools.  Educators know that grades K-3 need multiple teachers and/or adults in the room because reading is the most important skill any child can learn, and they HAVE to learn it early.  Educators also know that it’s a really stupid idea to give a second grader a calculator. Make them LEARN. Force it on them. It’s ALL about that foundation. And if they don’t have it by fifth grade, we find a place to educate them until they DO get it.  There should NEVER be a student “pushed through” to the next grade in the very early years if they have not mastered the material. That’s their foundation, and right now we’re letting it pass inspection with nothing but sand.

How Does This Idea Solve the Biggest Issues in Education?

In my opinion, there are three main issues facing public education:  funding, parental involvement, and technology overuse/addiction. The first is always going to be funding.  It’s always the biggest issue. I think we need to take a good hard look at where we’re spending our money and get rid of positions that don’t directly impact the lives of our children and their education.  Have some dadgum common sense about education for a change.  

If we’re good at that, and we make some tough but CORRECT decisions, a lot of our money problems will start looking a heck of a lot more like solutions.  If we empower our teachers to assess students and come up with creative ways to quantify and evaluate what has been learned, we won’t need these ten million dollar contracts with companies that could be inferior to what our own brilliant educators might develop.  We’ve never empowered them with that opportunity, have we?

Parental involvement is generally aligned with socioeconomic status.  More affluent parents are typically more involved and have higher expectations.  Less affluent parents are typically not very involved in their child’s education and have very low expectations of them.  Yes, these are stereotypes and there are exceptions, but statistics often tell these stories better than I can.  And they tell them the same way, just with numbers instead of words.  Here’s another example of why county disbursement of state funds makes a whole lot of sense. Counties would know where to spend money on parent outreach and involvement programs.

Technology overuse and/or addiction is something that many people may look at and scoff, but I know a thing or two about addiction.  A telephone to a ninth grader is, for many of them, an addiction. And forgive me for being presumptuous, but since addiction is bad for us, and the human brain doesn’t fully develop until the age of 25, I think addiction as an early teen has the potential to be a social epidemic leading towards adults that have such poor coping skills that they severely struggle with career acquisition and advancement.  And we’re letting them combine these poor coping skills with an addiction that will progress for many of them past technology and into alcohol or drugs because that earliest addiction doesn’t satisfy their need for a high any longer?  This does not get the press it deserves.  

And because they trained their still-developing brain how to be an addict at 12 or 14 years old, how hard is it going to be to train it back?  I didn’t have a cell phone as a child, and addiction is the hardest thing I’ve ever successfully beaten in my life. And my brain only developed for about 5 years as an addict.  These kids’ brains are developing with addiction 250% longer than me. Literally HALF of their cognitive developmental years are being supplemented with an addiction.  And we’re encouraging it!!  

The question leading this section was, “How does this idea solve the biggest issues in education?”  Well, go back to our foundation. If we spend more on our house’s foundation, won’t we probably spend less on house maintenance in the long run?  If we go ahead and put really good tires on the car, aren’t the chances of blowouts, wrecks, warping, and quicker replacement costs markedly diminished?  If we go ahead and take the time to put a layer of plastic under the mulch in our plant beds, won’t we have fewer weeds?

Spend money early, put LOTS of adults in charge of teaching basic reading and math skills, do anything necessary to force parental involvement, and keep technology out of their hands.  They don’t need a calculator or computer until they are at LEAST ten years old. K-5 are the most important years. I can’t prove it during any other time frame, but pouring money into K-5 will absolutely make a difference because we MUST refuse to promote them without a rock solid foundation. 

It differs every year, but as a ninth grade teacher who normally has between 60 and 80 students per semester, the most “on grade level” students I have taught in any one semester was six. SIX ninth graders were on grade level. One year the average of my students was a fourth grade level. Some may not agree, but that’s OUR fault.  And I don’t mean just the teachers either.  I’m talking legislature, society, school board, teachers, parents, administrators, everybody.  The fault lies in every single stakeholder involved in education.  Except the children.  They should NEVER be allowed to be promoted if they are that far behind. They need a better foundation – a foundation that is absolutely required in order to be promoted – and that requirement is NOT cheap, but it is absolutely vital for the only players in this game that matter. Our children.

What About Middle and High School?

Still want to incorporate “School Choice?”  If I had my druthers, vouchers and charter schools would just disappear entirely, but part of the political game is compromise.  I’m unwilling to compromise the most important six years of a child’s life, but what if it takes compromise to get it?  In that case, the time in a student’s life that makes sense to incorporate “School Choice” is to ease it in during the middle school years and then allow there to be charter high schools that cater to different paths our children might like to take.  Even still, I think it must happen in such a way that we protect against its implementation further segregating our schools. 

But if it is done right, I can get behind it in return for a renewed public school focus on elementary school.  And if “School Choice” is done right, what better time to start incorporating it than middle school, when we can really start seeing signs of the kids that need something different?  What better time to fully implement it than high school?  Just sit back and think of the many interests that start to develop in middle and high school students and how many of those interests are never nurtured in our traditional high schools.  And think about all the help we can get from our surrounding communities to help offset the costs of such educational opportunities.  

Can anybody foresee a scenario where corporations and their shady tax evasion practices use public education as their way to “give back” to their state and communities by offering programs that teach trades or skills necessary for those types of jobs.  Think about it. If we were teaching a group of students about customer service and inventory, couldn’t they apprentice for a few days at Walmart? Where does every single working human in the world learn more than they ever did in school? They learn ON the job.  Why can’t our local corporations and businesses help us with the education of entire groups of teenagers?  Sure, some regions are going to be easier than others at incorporating this, but these are the years when introducing virtual classes and VR and different travel options are completely acceptable.  We gave them the foundation to handle anything they face, right?

And sure, that’s just one example, but I wholeheartedly believe we should have academies and trade schools and International Baccalaureate program schools and general workforce schools and online schools and college prep high schools and specialized stuff like information technology schools and yes, I think corporations should earn their tax breaks by helping to educate their future employees.  There are SO many things we can offer our high school students.  

If we have 30 kids in the county that know by ninth grade that they want to be firemen, why can’t we send them to a fire academy taught by off-duty firemen at a fraction of the cost of a teacher?  We’re letting charter schools get away with non-certified teachers. Why not high schools?  

If we have 100 kids that want to enter an IB program, why not make that a voucher or scholarship program because IB is going to be far more expensive from the state’s standpoint than a fire academy or general workforce diploma schools.  How’s that for incorporating vouchers?

Going back to the first example, it doesn’t have to only be the behemoths like Walmart that give back.  We could use the high school years to apprentice with local businesses and manufacturers and farmers and trade workers and countless other professionals from our communities that would provide the kind of service that would not only save money for education but bring communities and races and socioeconomic statuses together into a show of equality and community involvement that we have probably never had in education.

Look at it this way.  This past semester I had 82 ninth grade students.  With two days left in the semester, I had nearly 50 failing.  We as a school system must toughen up on them from an early age and require a work ethic that for a ridiculously high percentage is nearly nonexistent.  If those students were in my class and refused to do the work I assigned, why not give them another option where they can at least learn a trade instead of sitting in school wasting their time and mine every day?  I think we would find that a large percentage would beg their way back into my classroom. The others might just find something within them that sitting at a desk all day never inspired.

And in that example, we wouldn’t wait until 2 days were left in the semester.  If their work ethic is so poor that by the third week of school it is obvious that they have no interest in doing the work, they are immediately placed in either an online course of the same title or they are asked to pick from the local academies or trade schools available to them in the county.  And if a student refuses to participate in ANY available school offered to them, and we must attempt to educate them until they are 16, the student is simply placed in a cubicle farm at a local school, where they will be given the online versions of all required coursework for a basic diploma, and their behavior in that setting is kept in check by a retired basic training drill sergeant.  

Within all of that, what if a student simply wants to go to a traditional high school, with sports and electives and a prom and all the other wonderful things that only high school can provide?  Why not incorporate a charter school model and make me compete with other teachers for the schools that pay the best. I’m a darn good math teacher, I’m worth more than a bad one. The individual communities will dictate how good they want their traditional high schools to be.  In turn, they will pressure the hell out of whoever is in charge of XYZ High School to hire Mr. Lee or their generous financial sponsorship of the football program will go away. Competition like this does not belong in the foundational years, but I see absolutely nothing wrong with it in high school, not when we’re inviting such a range of options and outside instructors for our high school students.  Also, I’m well aware that this could backfire on the high school teachers and we ALL get screwed from a salary standpoint. But I like the opportunities it gives kids, and it protects the younger children from getting a sandy foundation. This is ONLY about what’s best for children.

Also, remember that county money that we set aside before?  That’s what we’re using for high schools because every county is going to offer something different, so it’s up to them to figure out how much they want to spend.  There may be more industry in a county in southeast North Carolina who can offer more apprenticeship programs. There may be a local college in the mountains that opens up some college level trade schools to more high schoolers than they ever have.  Every county will be different because they will NEED to be different. If decisions are made with the children in mind, as they should be, every county will need to spend money differently.  

“School Choice” is a workable idea.  For high school. For elementary and (mostly) middle, our children are far too important to offer them three to five choices that are collectively about as uniform and equal as Taylor Swift and a dead badger.  And currently, when you’re trying to offer four or five avenues to get an education, that means NONE of them are very good.

So What Are the Societal Benefits of Great Public Education?

It has been proven that a well-educated public has fewer citizens on welfare and other social programs.  It has been proven that a well-educated public has fewer incarcerations. It has been proven that a well-educated public has a much better and more highly educated pool of potential candidates for job openings.  This, in turn, makes businesses want to relocate to that area. It has been proven that a well-educated public is more tolerant of a diverse population. And the trickle down means that we care more about our state and community and climate and fellow man and the overall Earth on which we live.

I found a stat I found phenomenal, if not pretty unscientific.  The website debate.org asked the question, “Can education change society?”  89% of respondents said yes.  89!!!!  (Debate.org, 2019.)  But what you have to realize with a response that one-sided is that there is another side to everything.  Whereas good education can absolutely change society for the better, doesn’t it then make sense that bad education can change society for the worse?  We’re heading that way because we’re watering down every type of delivery system and we are NOT thinking about the children FIRST.

There are quite literally no good reasons to go to a public/charter/private school voucher model for the education of our youngest people.  I have spent dozens upon dozens of hours researching the benefits of charter schools and vouchers, and there simply are NOT any benefits, not when everything is being watered down (and yes, I’m fully aware – as with anything – that there are individual success stories in everything.)  

But if we get the politics and the profits OUT of education and simply focus on what is right for each and every student while maintaining the equality guaranteed in the North Carolina Constitution, there is no other way to do this.

And you know what happens if you build this foundation?  Bad behavior and educational apathy goes WAAAYYY down in their advanced school years because students have an education of which to be proud and continue to build on in order to thrive.  ALL students would now know how to read and do basic math, and therefore their apathy towards school goes down because they know they can do the work. They aren’t scared of what happens in school, and therefore attendance goes up.  

I could keep going on this topic, but I think I made my point.  Actually, I probably made about twenty-five points. But I made a hell of a lot more sense than allowing people to profit off of education.  Of all things, just leave education alone. Go find a way to privatize the DMV or ABC stores or whatever. Keep your greedy hands off the babies.

 

Sources:

JoCo Report. (2018). Civil Rights Center Study: Redistricting Needed To End Segregated Johnston County Schools. [online] Available at: https://jocoreport.com/civil-rights-center-study-redistricting-needed-to-end-segregated-johnston-county-schools/ [Accessed 14 Jul. 2019].

 Education Week. (2019). Map: How Much Money Each State Spends Per Student. [online] Available at: https://www.edweek.org/ew/collections/quality-counts-2019-state-finance/map-per-pupil-spending-state-by-state.html [Accessed 18 Jul. 2019].

Debate.org. (2019). Can education change society?. [online] Available at: https://www.debate.org/opinions/can-education-change-society [Accessed 14 Sep. 2019].