First off, this article will talk a lot about the importance of public education. This is in no way a knock against St. Joseph’s Catholic or Emmanuel Faith Lutheran as we have a tremendous working relationship with them and admire and respect what they do and how they do it. I’m writing this piece as someone who loves Nebraska. This is more about the state landscape than just 17-county but make no mistake, it has an impact on every small town in the Cornhusker State.
This article is about putting all of the cards on the table and calling a spade a spade. Public education is under attack in Nebraska. Public education is under attack in the United States. Public education is worth fighting for.
Emanuele Corso wrote in his October 4th blog that “the foundational conception of public education is neither capitalism nor socialism, it is not about Republicans or Democrats, and never has been, before now, about profit. Public education has always been about the development of each child as an individual to the fullest extent of their abilities for the ultimate benefit of society.” However, a few folks seem keenly interested in changing this ideal.
This is about more than the money and the property tax relief we desperately want to provide our patrons. We’re still working at it, believe me, but it is extremely frustrating, to say the least. We’re down to just $225,000 in state equalization aid. We received over $3.7 million a few years ago. We predict we won’t receive any state equalization aid by 2019.
You see, we live in a time right now where not only are we not receiving the funding that we need (that forces an overreliance on local property taxes) but we’re having salt put in the wound by some politicians, think tanks, and organizations that want to push for charter schools, vouchers, and other mechanisms that they promote as “school choice” when, in many instances, they surely mean “for profit” or “exclusive.”
Many of these “school choice advocates” have never stepped foot in a public school. If we’re being perfectly honest, many of them simply don’t want their kids to go to school with “those public school kids.” They do want, in many instances, however, to take public funds away from already under-funded public schools and use that for “special schools” or “exempted tax credits” that don’t have the accountability and same rules to follow that we do. They don’t want to have to accept the $150,000 a year Special Education student. They don’t want to deal with the students and families with emotional disorders. They want the funding and support but none of the responsibility the rest of us have. That’s just plain wrong.
Perhaps these folks are excited about the school funding nightmare. Perhaps they applaud that state aid to schools in 2016-17 increased just .6% over 2015-16. Perhaps they look forward to more flat-line budgets and cuts. Perhaps they support unfunded mandates and the fact that public schools have to do more today than ever before. It seems as if they’re openly rooting for us to fail. Well, they don’t know Nebraska public educators like I do.
Public education is not perfect. We are always a “work in progress.” We have some under-performing employees just like hospitals, restaurants, construction companies, law offices, manufacturing plants, and all other walks of life. We have places across the board to improve in. Just like everyone else. We also have some of the most dynamic professionals you could ever hope to run into.
Public education is often the most important economic development initiative in our communities. We’re often the hub of our communities. Yes, we need to close achievement gaps across numerous disaggregated subgroups. Yes, we need to provide more early childhood offerings for our youngest learners. Yes, we need to increase the number of school-to-career opportunities for our students. Yes, we need money and political support to do so.
Nebraska’s public schools are also doing pretty doggone good! We have one of the highest average ACT scores in the nation for the 17 states that have 80% or more of their students taking it. We have one of the top high school graduation rates in the country. Our young Nebraskans in public schools also excel on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) assessments and perform well above national averages across the board.
Public education is a big business. But, we’re different too. We can’t suspend the night shift when the economy slows down. We can’t close early. We can’t reserve the right to refuse service to anyone. We can’t go to our 1st graders and tell them that due to the economic forecast we won’t be able to teach them how to read or subtract this year. We’re different than Corporate America or even the private sector up and down Main Street all across Nebraska towns.
We live in a time where everyone wants “change.” It’s trendy to want something new, something different than the past. Public schools are CHANGE and we are NEW. We’ve changed so much in the last 15 years, it is unbelievable. Many of us provide programming for 10-11 hours a day. We provide summer offerings. We provide new work certification programming, college credit courses, job shadowing, and more. We offer new opportunities in early childhood, high ability learning, and STEM initiatives. Don’t turn your back on public education because you want “change” and something “new.” That’s who we are and that’s what we do, for ALL students in ALL communities.
We also live in a time where many people in shiny suits like to blame public schools for the state’s property tax crisis. They have mastered half-truths and distorted data. It seems to be part of the larger plan to discredit public education, to play the “blame game,” and open the door for “new opportunities.” It’s a downright shame.
Statewide data from the Department of Education’s website shows us that Nebraska now has over 307,000 public school students. Around 45% of them are living in poverty as they qualify for free/reduced school meals. This has increased by more than 10% since 2004.
ALL of Nebraska’s children deserve our support. Please help us stand for ALL kids in ALL communities with ALL kinds of needs, talents, and issues in ALL public schools.