Public Education: How the Government is Failing Its Citizens

By Conlan Jarvis

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Photo by Feliphe Schiarolli on Unsplash

I could feel my chest tightening as I hurried to keep up with my 27 fifth grade classmates scrambling down the stairs. None of us wanted to be fighting for the last few seats as we made the transition from the 100-degree upstairs classroom to the air-conditioned basement. Drenched in sweat from the long period upstairs, I descended into the stinky dungeon air. Luckily, I got a fully operational desk, while some of my classmates were left to the furniture in the corner. I was able to relax as the coolness welcomed me, but I knew we would be returning upstairs soon, due to something called asbestos.

Some might believe that my story is an isolated incident; however, stories like these are becoming all too common. According to the National Education Association,[1] over 53% of public schools nationwide need improvements to achieve a "good" rating. This good rating means the "facility meets all the reasonable needs for normal school performance" (Alexander B-8). Due to the methodology that public education is almost exclusively funded by local and state sources, there is a lack of funding for these upgrades. This causes a myriad of issues for public schools and its students including health risks and lack of quality education. In order to better the education system of the United States, the federal government must contribute more money to the funding of public education in our country.

The Department of Education states that its goal in US education is "To promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access." For now, the Department is not reaching either of these goals. The United States does not provide equal opportunities to all its citizens and US education ranks poorly on the international scale. The latter is directly related to the former, so this essay will focus more on how a lack of funding disrupts equality in education. Having a personal experience in a decrepit school, I can relate to the unequal access to education.

One of the biggest issues with a lack of funding for public schools is infrastructure concerns. According to the 2016 State of our Schools report,[2] the main building of a public district is on average 44 years old (Filardo 10). With schools increasing in age, the need for updates increases. Before the 1980s, when most schools were built, schools were constructed with materials now known to be hazardous to human health.

My dear South Point Elementary was built well before 1980. It is riddled with asbestos in the plaster, and it also grows a profound amount of black mold. It was painted entirely with lead-based paint until my last year the district repainted the entire building. Many older schools also struggle with lead in the plumbing and PCBs in the lighting. Luckily, my school had drinkable water and safe, albeit dark, lighting. As an elementary school student, I did not understand why we could not just stay in the air-conditioned basement. It was a hassle moving the entire class multiple times a day, and it was simply miserable in the scorching upstairs classroom. With the risk of exposure to the "HazMats", it was considered relatively safe by the district to allow students downstairs for short intervals at a time.

Due to the lack of ventilation in my school's basement, it had very stagnant air and was constantly wet. This, combined with the poor lighting, enabled black mold to grow in abundance. Researchers at Lawrence Berkeley Labs found an increase of up to 370 percent in the incidence of respiratory illness in spaces with poor ventilation (Filardo 6). It is no surprise then that my elementary school seemed to have the poorest attendance in the district. Studies by the Center for Disease Control determined that early exposure to black mold can cause the development of asthma, and I can attest to that. I developed asthma a few years after elementary school. In 2004, the Institute of Medicine[3] also linked black mold to "upper respiratory tract issues, coughing, and wheezing" and "hypersensitivity pneumonitis," an infection and swelling of the alveoli in the lungs ("Mold"). In simplistic terms, exposure to black mold can cause serious health complications, yet due to the lack of funding, our district was overcrowded and had to place students in poor conditions.

Lying underneath the black mold, asbestos insulation lay hidden in the walls of the entire basement. Asbestos is commonly used because of its heat-resistance and efficient insulating properties. Exposure to asbestos has some similar side effects but is typically considered an even larger threat to human health. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services classifies asbestos as a carcinogen, causing mesothelioma, lung, larynx, and ovarian cancers. Being exposed to asbestos also heightens the chance of contracting asbestosis, pleural plaques, and many other lung diseases ("Asbestos Exposure and Cancer Risk"). These health complications are severe for adults but imagine a school full of 500 preteen students surrounded by these dangerous HazMats and the situation becomes much, much worse. Adolescents have not been exposed to as many pathogens as adults, so their immune system is still relatively weak. This means that any foreign substance has the potential to cause a greater damage to the developing bodies of adolescents.

Most of the issues surrounding the health and welfare of public-school students are derived from the deteriorated and outdated infrastructure. The obvious solution is to update schools to keep their students safe and learning at top capacity. This upkeep and advancement, however, comes at a steep monetary cost, and with the current funding, it is impossible. K-12 public schools are the second largest infrastructure sector in the United States (highways are first); however, the federal government dedicates no funding to school facilities (Litvinov). This means all funding for infrastructure updates comes directly from state or local sources, mainly property taxes. This essentially means the cities and communities with the poorest citizens also have the poorest school systems. As confirmed in a 2017 study by Center on Budget and Policy Priorities[4] researcher Liz McNichol, the schools with the poorest students need the most repairs (McNichol). Students need an equal opportunity to learn and be educated in safe, healthy environments, no matter their fiscal status. The Department of Education acknowledges this in their mission statement, but they fail to execute because they contribute nearly no funding to education and no funding to infrastructure. This is an issue which creates disparities in the quality of education in wealthy versus poor communities.

Funding for public schools comes from both federal, state, and local sources, mainly through taxes. Nearly half of the schools entire funding comes from local property taxes (Biddle and Berliner). Another CBPP researcher and The Washington Post writer, Jared Bernstein, determined that over 80% of the funding for public school infrastructure comes from the local community and the rest comes from the state (Bernstein). Because of this, any large proposals to renovate or build new schools cause an increase in taxes and must be approved by the citizens via a vote. This presents another potential issue, one I am familiar with, for public schools.

My hometown is by no means a poor community, but our school district was overcrowded, and many schools were crumbling. The district had just torn down one of the dilapidated elementary schools in the district, displacing over 100 kids to another already overcrowded school. With nowhere to go with the growing population, the school district prepared a bill proposing the construction of a new school, and it went to vote within the community. When the bill went to vote, it did not get the 4/7 majority vote it needed to pass, so the district could not build a new school.

Why would anyone vote down a proposal to help their children receive a better education in a better environment? Well to pass any bill, it must be popular with its constituents. It was popular with many people in the community; however, others felt strongly opposed to it. My hometown is predominantly Catholic and there are two schools, one public and one private. Many of the citizens either do not have children at the public school or have no descendants in school anymore. These citizens did not feel compelled to pay more taxes when the new school would not be benefiting them or their children directly. This poor outlook causes even more issues for public schools. It is already very difficult for public schools to raise funding and they must appeal to all citizens in the area, not only the ones attending their schools. This could all be avoided if the federal government supported infrastructure updates in public schools.

While most states are struggling with funding public schools, some have had a bit of success. Some states have used part of their revenue from gas and oil sales, coal revenue, and a few use a portion of their sales tax to fund school infrastructure upgrades (Bernstein). There is no perfect way to equalize education in all public schools, but nothing will happen if no proactive steps are taken towards change. The most effective solution in providing equality for all students would be for the federal government to get involved in funding. As suggested by Jared Bernstein, the Department of Energy could help finance greener ways to power schools. The Environmental Protection Agency could also supply funding since many schools contain hazardous substances (Bernstein). I believe the US could use a portion of its military funds to rebuild schools. Some may object to this and pose that our national defense is more important. Currently, the US spends over $600 billion on national defense per year, more than six times the amount allotted to education ("Federal Spending: Where Does the Money Go"). According to the NEA, it would cost about $50 billion dollars to repair all public schools to a "good" condition (Litvinov). This would take a cut of about 8% off the military budget one year. This is very practical considering the US spends more on its military than any other country in the world. If the US sacrificed $50 billion from its military spending, it would still contribute more to national defense than the next 6 highest spending countries combined ("U.S. Defense Spending Compared to Other Countries"). The funding should not fall on a single government department, but collectively the federal government must contribute more money to public education.

Critics object to money being everything in education. They often attribute the quality of teachers, attitude of administrators, and parental involvement to the success of students. When I interviewed, Dr. Lori Van Leer, superintendent of the School District of Washington, she agreed that to better education, it would take a team effort. When I asked if more money would improve education, she chuckled: "Well, it certainly would help." (Van Leer). She knew although money would not solely fix all problems in public education, it would obviously make a large impact. Other professionals in the field of public education agree. When asked about the quality of education, Harold O. Levy, former chancellor of New York City schools[5] claimed in 2000, "You do it [education] the old-fashioned way. It's money. Money." (Howell and Peterson 91). Judges have also ruled in favor of this notion. In a 2000 court case in Ohio, the judge stated, "No one can ensure that adequate facilities and educational opportunities will lead to the success of the students in this state. One thing is apparent, though, is that substandard facilities and inadequate resource and opportunities for any of those students are a sure formula for failure." (Howell and Peterson 91) Even judicial courts of the US have been able to uphold the notion that money is a huge component to the success in education.

Although there is a multitude of research correlating a school's wealth to its academic achievement, there is other evidence that undercuts this: private schools have better standardized test scores, even though they spend less money per student than public schools. In data compiled in The Education Gap, as of 1994 public schools spent roughly 80% more per student than private schools (Howell and Peterson 92). So why do private schools consistently have better standardized test scores? Private schools are free to spend their money however they deem fit. Whereas private schools have more computer labs, programs for advanced learners, and many more individual tutors, public schools offer broader resources, some of which may not be beneficial to education. Public schools offer a nurse's office, child counselors, and a gymnasium at a much higher rate than private institutions. They offer special education and programs for non-English speakers (Howell and Peterson 94-95). They also spend money on free lunch programs[6] and BackPack Programs[7]. Public schools are much more inclusive to students of all abilities because they offer a diverse range of services that do not correlate directly to education. Private schools, however, can focus all their spending on ways to increase students test score performance.

The controversy becomes even more complex when realizing the data collected in 1994 does not take into consideration all aspects of private school funding. It only considers the tuition paid by students. Many private schools receive a great number of private donations. Private schools can also receive money from endowments and other sources. According to Father Schmittgens, president of St. Francis Borgia Regional High School, the private school in my hometown, they receive money through endowments and receive grants from the Archdiocese of St. Louis. These grants and endowments amount to over $1 million per year, about 20% of their total budget (Schmittgens). The actual amount of money spent per pupil in private schools is difficult to estimate because they receive money from a multitude of sources, but the number is higher than represented in The Education Gap since it only accounts tuition.

The federal government is also failing at the other part of its goal for public education: fostering educational excellence and competing internationally. As of 2015, the United States continues to be in the middle of the pack in math, reading, and science and below many other industrialized nations. In the Programme for International Student Assessment,[8] the US ranked 38th of 71 of all countries in math, 24th in science, and 23rd in reading. This is not "excellent" by any means, but the US fared even worse out of developed countries. Out of the 35 countries who are members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development,[9] the US ranked 30th in math and 19th in science (DeSilver). This is very poor when considering the US is self-proclaimed to be the greatest country in the world. Because of disparities in the quality of education across the country, the United States education system is not only failing its students but also failing the future of our country.

Something needs to be done about the deteriorating quality of our nation's education. It puts children's health at risk and sacrifices their future opportunities. I know firsthand the adverse health effects of schools and I advocate for this issue to prevent others from having similar experiences. The United States is not only failing on international standards but also on their own. The biggest issue is funding. To provide better education and prevent situations like the one my fellow students and I at South Point Elementary faced, schools must receive more funding to provide adequate learning environments. There is no simple solution on how to raise funding for education, and it won't happen overnight; however, the federal government must step in and take a lead role in funding public education in order to foster "educational excellence" and provide equal opportunities to all its citizens.

[1]The National Education Association is a national organization with over 3.2 million members, dedicating its research and efforts to improving public education.

[2] The State of Schools report, written by Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, Rachel Gutter, director of the Center for Green Schools, and Mike Rowland, president of the National Council on School Facilities, analyzes a compilation of data collected over the period of 20 years from sources such as the U.S. Census of Governments F-33 Fiscal Surveys and the National Center for Education Statistics.

[3] The National Institute of Health is currently the National Academy of Medicine. It is a nonprofit organization designed to advocate better healthcare and conduct research in the medical field.

[4] The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities is a nonpartisan research and policy institute, that analyzes federal budget priorities and advocates for policies designed both to reduce poverty and inequality.

[5] The New York City Schools Chancellor is the head of the New York City Department of Education. The Chancellor is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the department as well as all New York City Public Schools.

[6] The National School Lunch Program is a federally assisted meal program operating in public and nonprofit private schools. It provides low-cost or free lunches to children each school day.

[7] The BackPack Program is part of Feeding America that supplies impoverished students with meals on weekends.

[8] The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) is an international assessment that measures 15-year-old students' reading, mathematics, and science literacy every three years.

[9] The OECD is an intergovernmental economic organization, whose member countries are considered developed, founded to stimulate economic progress and world trade.