Feature

The Public School Speaks

The country’s greatest egalitarian institution answers its critics by Frosty Troy

Iam your public school, a 200-year-old experiment that has given America the strongest economy in world history. We are 88,000 buildings in more than 14,000 districts. And we are as diverse as this great country.

Last fall I embraced more than 48 million children. For most of them, I am their only hope for future success. I represent home schooling at its best, for I am the home school of 10 million latchkey children. Yes, my corridors have known random acts of violence, yet the FBI says a child is safer in my arms than he or she is at home.

When the buses roll up, my doors are flung open to children of all shapes, sizes and levels of ability: those who use wheelchairs, the geniuses, the average students and the developmentally disabled. I enroll more than 9 million youth for whom English is a second language. They speak more than 400 languages. The Cambodian highland children who come here bring with them no written alphabet. What other institution would embrace them as I have?

Judging Me
Some of you would judge me by test scores, but I would remind you that a test measures only one dimension of a student's development — only in that subject on that day and depending on whether that student tests well. I must remind you that No Child Left Behind tests don't include foreign language, music, art, drama, history, government and vital extracurriculars.

My SAT math and science test scores are at a 33-year high, and my ACT scores are as strong as ever despite a doubling of the number of test takers, including a 30 percent increase in minorities.

My dirty little secret is that many of the 11 percent of children who drop out are the products of sorry parenting. Parents send me children who are unwanted, unwashed, unloved. Some are strung out on drugs and alcohol. Some are abused and neglected. Some never have been taken to a church, synagogue or mosque.

If some of the students fail, it isn't for lack of trying by the administration, faculty and support staff, among the most dedicated but lowest paid in the industrial democracies of the world. Latest figures show America is 8th in K-12 funding and 22nd in teacher pay among industrialized nations.

The miracle is that our doors are open to all children, and many of them are reached — not by textbooks but by educators who know there is more to a child's life than rote learning. For thousands of little kids, the only hug they get is at school.

My Responsibility
Some say that private school tuition is less costly than funding a student in public school. But private schools are mandate-free. I provide special education, counseling, career tech, dropout prevention, bilingual education, compensatory education, student transportation, health and psychological programs, security and numerous other programs based on both state and federal mandates.

It is painful to be accused of failing black children. That's a calumny. The U.S. Census estimates 70 percent of black children are born to single moms. This alone creates a whole new set of problems for the schools. There is no mystery as to why some children do better than others. In No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap In Learning, Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom report that Asian children spend 35 hours a week on homework or in the library; Caucasians average 7–8 hours, black and Hispanic children average 3 hours.

I am trying my hardest to reach all students. My plea for more early childhood education goes unheeded, yet billions of dollars are earmarked for more tests under No Child Left Behind. Private tutoring is a new billion dollar business.

Good Works
I grieve when I hear critics say I am “secular” because no specific belief systems are taught in my pluralistic system. But when it comes to doing God's work, we're on duty every day. Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and nurturing the children are spiritual injunctions in all the great religions of the world. The New Testament’s I John 3:18 says, "Let us not love with word or with tongue but in word and truth."

Last year more than 30 percent of the students ate their only hot meal of the day in our cafeterias. Thousands of poor children found decent clothing and underwear in school clothing closets filled by faculty, staff and PTAs. Teachers spent an average of $486 of their own money for basics like workbooks and pencils for needy children. (Many 1st- and 2nd-grade teachers spent nearly $1,000 each.) Can anyone name any other profession that gives so much to the children of strangers?

Role modeling, not mantras and Hail Marys, comes from a vocation that provides more Sunday school teachers than any other profession or occupation in America. Some would mock our athletic programs, yet for many youngsters, our coaches are their only male role models. Teamwork and sportsmanship are enduring principles that millions of our graduates have trans¬lated into successful careers and successful families.

No school prayer? I wish you could hear the thousands of reverent, whispered entreaties sent heavenward from students and faculty every day in my buildings. God's presence is palpable. One of the prayers I overhear most often is, "Please God, give me the patience to get through just one more day with these kids and with their hostile parents."

A Solid Base
I am passionately committed to the belief that God gives children different gifts. We alone welcome all those children, whatever gifts they bring. We play no favorites. Our success speaks for itself. America is third in the world in college graduation rates. Nearly 25 percent graduate with a four-year degree or more. Tens of thousands come from abroad to benefit from the finest higher education system in the world.

Some say I should prepare more students for college, as though college is for everyone. No other nation in the world has a finer career and technical education system — from medical technology schools to avionics and computer training. Don't look down your nose at plumbers (average salary $56,000 to $95,000) or heating and air conditioning technicians (average salary $80,000+).

Who says there are no heroes today? Did you see the biographies of the rescuers who died in the World Trade Center tragedy? Firefighters, police officers, union members, emergency workers — 90 percent of them public school graduates. Those soldiers on the frontline in Iraq represent our public schools. Public schools always have provided the men and women who fight our wars and defend our shores.

One of my most precious possessions is more than six million special education youngsters. We alone address their needs. If your heart ever needs a lift, spend time with a person with Down syndrome who is gainfully employed thanks to public education.

Standing Tall
I suffer the slings and arrows from those who stress my shortcomings in order to defame public education. Yet my students outscore students in the average charter school. There is less cheating in public schools than in private schools. Repeated studies show that when students are matched in family struc¬ture, family income and family education attainment, public school students do as well or better than parochial school students.

Defaming public education to promote vouchers for religious schools is an egregious miscarriage of education's mission. I am held accountable by my school board for every dollar spent. Vouchers require zero accountability.

Thanks to the vision of our forebears, America had a 100-year head start on every other nation in creating universal free public education. Today, even with all its flaws, it is the finest system in the industrial world.

I leave no child behind, but some of you would dim my lights, leaving in the shadows the poor, the blind, the lame and the developmentally disabled. The Government Accountability Office says a third of my buildings are in desperate need of repair. A third of my buildings lack wiring sufficient to teach computer science, yet no help is forthcoming. Rather, some would use public school dollars to construct new forms of theocratic education.

Do as you will, but as for me, I will stand proudly in my neighborhood, America's last egalitarian institution, my arms embracing the finest educators, administrators and support personnel in the world — dedicated to helping our children realize the American dream.

Frosty Troy is the editor of The Oklahoma Observer, P.O. Box 53371, Oklahoma City, OK 73152. E-mail: ftroy@keytech.com