One year when I was in high school, my school ran out of paper. Our principal appeared on the morning announcements and urged us all to refrain from printing assignments in the school library and encouraged teachers to send homework electronically. This absurd scenario lasted for weeks, but to my peers and me at the time, it didn’t seem too far out of the ordinary. After all, our AP Literature class had 40 students packed into one classroom and not enough seats, so we’d sit on camping chairs our teacher brought to class, some of us left to sit with our legs crossed on the floor. I went to public school in Arizona where, like in many other states, kids are forced to find their way in an education system that cannot even afford them the basic materials they need to learn.
Only 56 percent of the Tufts Class of 2021 attended public high schools. Of that 56 percent, I would venture to guess that many were located in places such as New York, Massachusetts or Connecticut — states that have some of the highest levels of per-pupil funding in the nation. Arizona is in the bottom three by that metric. The extent of inequality between public schools can insulate more privileged students or make us believe that the problem is not actually so bad. But the fact remains that in 2017, over half of Americans were dissatisfied with the quality of K-12 education in the U.S.
Clearly, there is something wrong with the status quo. But how do we fix it? One can take two approaches. The first is completely giving up on the public education system, labeling it “broken” and “unfixable” and funneling money to charter schools and voucher programs that allow (privileged) parents to let their kids opt out.
The problem with this approach is that charter schools lack oversight and accountability, and while they can be beneficial in some circumstances, their net benefit to the system is dubious due to inconsistent quality. Not all students have the opportunity to attend the top charters. Education funding is a zero-sum game, and the more dollars that flow to charter schools, the less will flow to public schools.
The second option is reform. A landmark study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in July 2016 examined student test scores and found that in the long run, states that send additional money to their lowest-income school districts see more academic improvement in those districts than states that don’t. This finding is significant because it clears up the prevailing doubts that public schools are too inefficient to allocate funds properly. In short, more funding is likely to improve the quality of education.
The public school system is undoubtedly flawed, but abandoning it is a privilege. The students who will be left behind are those who have no other choice. The most pervasive problems with our public schools can be combated with a greater understanding of demographic issues, comprehensive budget reform and most importantly the belief itself that these issues can be combated. Giving up now would shortchange a generation of students in underfunded states who just want to be able to put pen to paper and pursue their dreams.