Dear President Obama,
I strongly supported you in 2008 and I continue to support you in 2012; however, your record and your policies on education give me pause. Unlike Governor Romney, who by all accounts views public education and teachers with contempt, you have expressed some interest in preserving and improving our nation’s democratic educational system.
Unfortunately, the rhetoric and lip service that you pay public education and teachers has not been matched by the policies of your administration. As a result, I am left wondering if there is any hope for a truly democratic educational system that affords all students, no matter what neighborhood they live in or what their family circumstances, an opportunity for an equitable education.
I teach in Philadelphia, a city that has struggled with violence, concentrated generational poverty, unemployment, and inequality for decades. Further, I teach students who are over-aged (16-21 years old) and under-credited (having fewer than 12 of the 23.5 credits necessary for graduation). My students are teen parents, foster kids, victims of violence, and full-time workers. They have struggled with abuse, seen expulsion from “no excuses” charter schools, and been incarcerated. My students have been labeled dropouts, failures, and delinquents. In spite of these myriad mistakes and roadblocks, my students come to school everyday with more energy, determination, and drive than any I’ve experienced in my entire educational career.
I share this description of my specific population to demonstrate the importance of alternative programs. Unfortunately, programs like this are a dying breed. They are an easy target for budget cuts. Every spring, my colleagues, students, and I wait with bated breath for the District’s decision about the fate of our school. Two years ago, we saw our doors shuttered, only to be reopened months later after being used as political leverage. However with the mobility and fragility of our population, this experience served as the final blow for nearly one third of our students.
Our precarious position is a direct result of growing privatization in the educational system. Coincidently, this same privatization is the exact reason that the waiting list for my program continues to grow each passing semester.
Privatization within public education is systematically undermining our nation’s democratic educational ideal by siphoning resources from public schools and communities. Additionally, this system of privatization has created a two-tiered reality of education in large urban districts, affording a select few students a high caliber education, while the majority of students are forced to cope with under-funded and dilapidated schools.
More troubling even than the inequitable system created by privatization is the proliferation of for-profit schools. In Philadelphia alone, we’ve seen a staggering number of cases of fraud coming from charter and cyber schools that promise parents and children better opportunities, only to take the money and run. When education becomes a for-profit business, the focus shifts from learning to the balance sheet. Students and parents become customers. Teachers cease to be educators and become merely workers. Education is a public good and must be regarded as such.
In 2008, I was energized by your message of hope and change. Though I recognize the mountain of challenges that awaited you when you took office, I am dismayed by the absence of efforts to address the profound inequality that exists in our education system. It is astounding that in Philadelphia, two schools less than one mile apart see more than a $13,000 disparity in per student funding. The way that schools are funded at the local, state, and national levels is antiquated and perpetuates this two-tiered system of education.
I implore you to push your Secretary of Education and your administration to abandon symbolic actions like “Race to the Top”, test-based accountability, and merit-based pay. Our nation’s educational system requires a dramatic rethinking beginning with funding, teacher training, and teacher retention. All students, particularly those in poverty, deserve highly practiced, compassionate, and committed educators. It is only through an investment in equitable public schools that our nation can achieve a truly democratic system that will serve as a model for the world.
Please, President Obama, recognize that your policies are demoralizing not only teachers, but also the students they serve. They are well aware of the divestment in public schools and turn to their teachers for answers. Almost daily, my students look at me and say, “The city doesn’t care about us. The nation doesn’t care about us. No one cares about us.”
Prove them wrong, President Obama.
Prove to students in Philadelphia and in cities across the country that you have not given up on them. Prove this by ensuring equality in our nation’s public education system.
Thank you very much for your consideration.