May 18, 2013
Paul Cummins: The Elephant in the Classroom
Posted on Nov 13, 2006
By Paul Cummins
Editor’s note: The following is the first chapter of Paul Cummins’ upcoming book, “Two Americas, Two Educations: Funding Quality Schools for All Students” (Red Hen Press, January 2007).
In this excerpt, Cummins, the co-founder of the trailblazing Crossroads School in Santa Monica, Calif., argues that America contradicts its purported belief in the value of education by egregiously underfunding it.
Yet many of our schools are failing. How has this tragic disconnect occurred? Daily in our newspapers we read of declining test scores, overcrowded schools, gangs and vandalism, drugs and violence, deteriorating school grounds and buildings, alienated youth who are dropping out in droves. Yet, during much of this time, say, 1970-2005, the U.S. economy has grown and flourished. California, whose economy is larger than that of most nations in the world, is a case in point. In the 1970s, California public schools were judged to be excellent. Per-pupil spending in California schools was consistently above the national average. Then several major challenges (some would say disasters) confronted the state, and thus the schools, simultaneously.
California began receiving an unprecedented influx of immigrants, who now constitute 10 percent of the population (as opposed to the national average of 5 percent). Many of the new immigrants, who spoke little English, enrolled their children in the public schools. (Latino children now represent 45.8 percent of California’s public schools and 72.8 percent of the Los Angeles Unified School District.) In addition, California has one of the highest percentages in the nation of children who live in poverty, and this condition is worsening.
The nation also faces a growing sense that democracy at home is under siege. No matter how much they may admire billionaire captains of industry, most Americans still cherish a belief in a just society that is able to maintain at least some equality or proportionality of opportunity, and appropriateness in the distribution of wealth. Yet, as we have seen—and as this book argues—there has been a relatively recent and very rapid increase in the disparity of wealth in America. This growing gap plays itself out in our national education systems, where we see the growth of two distinct polarities: two Americas, two educations. On the one hand we see private schools and wealthy neighborhood public schools that offer beautiful and functional campuses, comprehensive and enriched curricula, and excellent teaching conditions. On the other hand, we find many inner-city and low-income neighborhood public schools with inadequate facilities, overcrowded classrooms, undernourished curricula, and overall miserable teaching conditions. And though some would argue otherwise, the fact that the well-to-do schools are often spending three times more than the others is, I believe, a major reason for the differences in quality, and hence opportunity, for the children. There is an elephant in the living room that most legislators, citizens, and even educators are ignoring: we are not properly funding our schools. Though we may wish it would, this elephant will not go away. Furthermore, there is a reason for this situation that we have not yet fully grasped.
Some will argue that educational spending has grown along with everything else—so what’s the problem? They will often add that it must therefore be poor management, bureaucracy, progressively oriented college education departments, or whatever, that have rendered our schools inadequate, not a lack of funds. I disagree. What we have not grasped is that in urban areas and elsewhere there has been a massive increase in social problems that has been neither fully acknowledged nor confronted.
1 Eric Hanusher, as quoted in Alfie Kohn, “The Schools Our Children Deserve” (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1999), p. 247.
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