Doug Selwyn: Can we prioritize our children? Too many students are not coming to school ready and able to learn

DOUG SELWYN

DOUG SELWYN

By DOUG SELWYN

For the Recorder

Published: 02-16-2024 2:24 PM

We spent a week over the holidays with a two-year-old, a five-year-old and one of their parents, helping the family deal with the holiday gap in school/day care. Their parents both work at demanding jobs, struggled to find appropriate child care and schooling and then have had to juggle schedules to deal with school vacations and breaks, coverage over the summer, sick days and the rest.

Despite their well-paying jobs, they’ve had to figure out how to pay for it, to make sure the kids can get where they need to be, and to find time to be together as a family without the intrusion of everything else that demands their attention.

Seeing their struggles raises some pretty obvious questions. If these highly capable, system savvy and well-resourced parents are facing an overwhelming struggle to find and pay for appropriate schooling and day care for their children, how do parents without resources, without a comfort and familiarity in dealing with school systems and administrators, and who may have limited comfort with English, or with the culture manage to get their children what they need? And my questions go way beyond the challenge of child care.

I used to ask rhetorically, each year that I taught, why do we as a society hate our children so much as I watched so many of our children and families struggle to simply survive and to make sense of education and social service systems that seemed designed to frustrate and defeat those needing them the most. We may love our own children, and maybe a few others, but we don’t seem to love or like or even care about “other people’s children” enough to pass and enact policy that raises up all of us, and we make it very difficult to access the resources that are available. We live in the wealthiest country in the world, maybe in history, and it has seemed to me that we could choose to do better by our children and families but instead we seem intent on doing the opposite, making life easier for the wealthy and more challenging, more complicated for those struggling to get by.

As I started doing research for this column, I came across an article asking the same question, entitled “Why Does America Hate Its Children?” The author does not have the answer to that question (neither do I) but provides much evidence to show why she is asking it, comparing how the U.S. does not support children and families to other countries that do. What any teacher wants, more than anything, is to work with children who are coming to school healthy, in a good place physically and emotionally, and ready and able to learn. The reality is that too few of our children in too many of our communities arrive at school ready and able to learn.

Jean Anyon did research in New Jersey schools and found that there was a wide range of education offered by public schools, with schools in the wealthiest communities educating students for leadership positions, schools in the poorest communities training students to low end jobs, and so on. She wrote “Attempting to fix inner-city schools without fixing the city in which they are embedded is like trying to clean the air on one side of a screen door.”

We must look directly at schools but also understand and address the interplay of racism, discrimination in housing and employment, and economic policy as well to “fix” the schools. There are two fundamental issues I want to raise that are outside the schools but have a significant impact on the education of our children. The first is the impact that increasing economic inequality has on the overall health and well-being of our population; that is the one I will deal with today. The second concerns how we deal with families that are pregnant, and/or with newborns during the first crucial days, months, and years of life. Both contribute to the struggles of so many of our families to raise healthy children, and both have a significant impact on the education our children. That will be the subject of next month’s column.

Inequality

Research has shown that, while individual actions such as diet, smoking, and exercise do contribute to a person’s health, the most significant factor contributing to the health of a population is the degree of economic inequality that exists within that population. That is true no matter how wealthy the population, no matter the form of government or politics. The more unequal the population, the poorer the health, a simple equation, and this shows up in a wide range of categories. We live shorter lives. There is a higher rate of maternal and infant mortality, greater drug use and mental health issues, more teen births, more violence, higher rates of imprisonment, higher obesity levels, less social mobility, and poorer educational performance.

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The U.S. was among the healthiest countries in the world in the 1950s, when there was a growing middle class and the society was much more equal (for whites; there has always been criminal inequality for people of color, and their communities have consistently been less healthy). The tax rate on the wealthiest Americas was more than 70%, the top tax rate on corporations was around 50%, and nearly one third of the work force were members of unions, so that they were making good salaries, with some benefits.

Since then, “trickle down economics” has led to the top tax rates on individuals and corporations being significantly reduced, only 6% of private workers are in unions, and the health of our population has fallen. We are currently rated no better than 35th healthiest country in the world, worse than all other wealthy countries and worse than several poorer ones. Our children are less healthy than they were in the fifties.

We have come to learn (especially since Covid) that a major function of schools is to provide free day care and, in many cases, to be the main source of nutrition for families struggling with food insecurity. Many schools now send food home on weekends, over vacations, and have summer feeding programs so the kids won’t starve. We have millions of children going to bed hungry each night, hundreds of thousands who are either homeless or housing insecure, and who lack adequate access to health care, adequate heat, clothing, and transportation to get them through a bitter winter. In addition, many of our young people living in poverty have experienced significant trauma and loss. They are more likely to experience inadequate maternal nutrition, environmental pollutants, toxic chemicals, violence at home and in the community, family stress, housing insecurity, and more. All this while living in the wealthiest country in the world.

It is not news to anyone that there are rich and poor people in our country, though the degree of wealth and poverty might come as a surprise to many of us. What may be something that we have not given adequate attention to is that the significant and increasing gap between the rich and the poor is the result of intentional policy choices made by our leaders, by the decision makers we elect to represent us. Other countries have made different decisions about what to value and how to spend their resources, and those countries that have placed people at the top of their list of what they value have healthier populations than we do in the U.S., their children are better educated, their educators are highly respected, paid a livable wage, are much happier and less likely to leave their profession.

Their relative health and happiness are not the result of good luck, but of intentional policy choices by countries based on their decision to value their people, their children, above all else. While there are certainly actions we can take within our schools to improve the health, education, and well-being of our children, we have to understand that we have chosen, and continue to choose to compromise what our schools can do through our policies that over-feed the wealthy at the expense of so many of us. We can make other choices, to place our people first; there are examples in the world of countries that have done so. The question is, do we have the will to make that change.

Doug Selwyn taught at K-12 public schools from 1985 until 2000 and then at university as a professor of education until he retired in 2017. He is the chair of the Franklin County Continuing the Political Revolution education task force. You can reach him at dougselwyn12@gmail.com.