If Children Are the Future, Invest in Them Today

If Children Are the Future, Invest in Them Today

As young people begin their trek back to school this fall, too many of them will be going to crowded and run-down classrooms. A full third of all public schools use portable classrooms. One-fifth have less than adequate safety features, including leaky roofs and spotty electrical power. Three-quarters of all schools say they need to spend money on repairs, renovation and modernization to bring school buildings into good overall condition.
We adults are fond of saying we believe that children are the future, and politicians are great at turning education into a campaign issue.  But when I read a recent report from the National Center for Educational Statistics about crowded and dilapidated schools, I had to wonder when some of these politicians last spent time in a public school. If any of them would drop by, perhaps they would be more willing to consider legislation that would create $24.8 billion in school construction bonds. Instead, Republicans say this is a “bricks and mortar approach” to education and prefer to focus on school vouchers.
Even if we passed national legislation authorizing vouchers today, the overwhelming majority of our nation’s children would still attend public schools. This fall, enrollment is projected at an all-time high level of 53 million children, and 47 million of these children attend public schools. Granted, public schools aren’t perfect, but the structural imperfections are glaring proof of how little we think of our young people. How many of us would choose to go to offices so dilapidated? 
Then there is the matter of crowding. In Los Angeles, the second largest school system in the country is projecting a shortfall of 85,900 desks in the next six years. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, “Already, in some classrooms, there are twice as many children as there are desks.” Political battles about busing aside, 15,000 schoolchildren ride buses each day because there is no room for them in their home schools.
There are crowded schools everywhere. But inner cities and rural areas have alarming challenges. More than three-quarters of all rural schools need to be repaired or modernized. Almost half had unsatisfactory environmental conditions. More than 30 percent report inadequate heating, ventilation and air conditioning. And because so many rural areas have declining tax bases, it is difficult to renovate rural schools.
It makes no sense that we fund schools from local property tax dollars, because that is simply a way of perpetuating patterns of poverty. The poorest areas tend to have the lowest tax bases, but also need the greatest amount of educational remediation if their students are to have a shot at productive lives. President Clinton’s school modernization legislation goes a short way toward dealing with some of these issues, but in the long run an “education president” would talk about ways that federal funding could strengthen the quality of local schools across the board, not simply in the area of repairs and modernization.
Instead, while we are all buzzing about the great economy and the proliferation of technology, too many students wouldn’t know technology if it hit them upside the head. A total of 63 percent of all instructional classrooms had Internet access in 1999, the last year for which data was available. But just 39 percent of classrooms in high-poverty schools had access to the Internet. This digital divide may have long-term implications for poor youngsters. Yet some legislators refuse to make money available to close this digital gap.
Too often, I’ve heard fiscal conservatives say that we won’t solve our nation’s education problems by “throwing money” at the schools. But data from the National Center for Educational Statistics suggests that we couldn’t hurt schools by throwing a few dollars their way. When enrollments are rising and desk space is scarce, it takes more than a discussion about vouchers to make sure that there is a learning space for every child. When too many inner-city and rural youngsters learn in classrooms that are not wired for the Internet, it is not inappropriate to suggest that money be made available for wiring.
Crowding in primary and secondary education today has implications for higher education tomorrow. If students are jockeying for desk space in K-12 classrooms, how prepared will they be when they enter the higher education system? If they have stood in line to use a computer and don’t have one at home, how will they compete with a colleague who has had the best of everything, from kindergarten to high school graduation?
There’s something else. For the longest time, those with degrees in education were seen as the least talented of college graduates. Now, with teacher shortages, will their pay tick up to match demand, and will perceptions of them change?
The viability of higher education is tied to the viability of K-12 education. Yet we in higher education often see the challenges as separate and distinct. School crowding, teacher shortages and resource bottlenecks hit students in today’s classrooms hard. What impact do these hardships have on students of the future? What impact do they have on career choice?  Kids aren’t fools. How many young people will burn to be teachers when they understand how shabbily educators are systematically treated?  And what does this mean to those of us who teach in schools of education?
We keep saying children are our future. But educational trends suggest that we have not been forward thinking for awhile. By the end of this century, it is projected that as many as 90 million youngsters will be enrolled in K-12 programs, and demand for higher education opportunities will rise sharply as well. Are we prepared for new students and for the ways their presence will shape our ability to teach and their ability to learn? 



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