In the last couple of weeks, two stories floated into my periphery that, when taken together, begin to paint a solidly depressing picture of where we're headed as a country. They deal with our public schools (or, perhaps, what is left of them), our notions of fairness and class, and most importantly the real lessons we are teaching our children as they grow up in the death throes of late capitalism.
The first came from, of all places, the New York Post, part of Rubert Murdoch's large and ultraconservative group of media holdings. This is not the sort of publication you would expect to run a story sympathetic to the poor, and that, I think, goes to show you just how far off the rails we have already slipped. The story in question reports on a New York City public school principal's decision to keep children who were unable to pay for a jump castle party in the school's auditorium while the rest of the students went outside. What's perhaps worse is that the principal apparently ignored an offer from the owner of the company that provided the jump castles to host a free party for the children who were not allowed to participate during the first party.
The fact that the Post is not only reporting on this issue but is declining to lash out against the purported evils of the public school system is extremely telling.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, an Aurora, Colo. school's kitchen manager recently lost her job. She wasn't caught in a relationship with a student or found sharing drugs or alcohol with them at a wild party. She committed the grievous sin of giving free food to some of the children who could not, for various reasons, pay for their school lunches.
According to a CBS story, "Students who fail to qualify for the free lunch or reduced lunch program receive one slice of cheese on a hamburger bun and a small milk." The school district's statement read in part, "The costs of our lunch program are not covered by the prices we charge" and noted that unpaid accounts went against funds for "instruction, security, building maintenance, and overall operations."
And this is where part of the problem lies. If the school system is already losing money on its lunch program, then simply not enough money is being allocated to cover the cost of feeding its student body. Furthermore, why we still have a system in any school district in this country where students buy their lunches is an indictment of how we educate our children.
Over the last few years, a great deal of noise has been made over Michelle Obama's plans to make school lunches healthier. These shouts have obscured, rather than illuminated, some interesting things about our school systems, namely who sits on school boards around the nation.
The National School Boards Association's "School Boards Circa 2010: Governance in the Accountability Era" report provides some insight into that. The numbers, based on "responses from a sample of 900 individual board members, 120 superintendents, and 153 board presidents or chairs who collectively serve in 418 districts" are, frankly, frightening. Sixty percent of board members either don't have children in the schools they serve, or don't have children at all. Ninety percent of them have incomes above the national average, with a full 42 percent reporting incomes above $100,000 a year. Only 20 percent report being "liberal," while another 20 percent have occupations in education. Only 15 percent belong to an educator's union. Almost 67 percent reported that budget and funding issues are "extremely urgent." The vast majority see either state or federal laws, or collective bargaining agreements, as barriers to "what [they] would like to see the district do to improve student achievement".
This is a picture of American school boards stacked with people who have short-term, reactionary political interests in mind. In short, the public school systems in America are run by wealthy people who don't seem to have a vested interest in what they're doing. These are likely the same people who would tell you in a conversation about income inequality that there's "no such thing as a free lunch in America," all while trying to figure out how to circumvent laws preventing their children from attending private schools on the taxpayer's dime. They will also complain about the declining standards of American schools in relation to other industrialized nations, most of whom offer free education to all their citizens — some of them even through the undergraduate stage.
Which brings us back to the jump castle story in New York. The school not only didn't lose money on the jump castle party, they made a profit, and the $2,000 to $3,000 raised will now be used for "moving-up parties" as children graduate to higher grades. I don't know about you, but if schools feel those parties are necessary to children, then those parties should be included in a school's budget. Just like school lunches. Just like the pens and pencils and notebooks children use in school — and that we as parents have to buy every single year.
After all, while there may not be free lunches in America, there certainly should be. And those lunches should be available along with a free, quality education in every single American school.