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Trusted local news leader for Prescott area communities since 1882
4:06 PM Tue, Jan. 22nd

Column: Schools make or break our society

This day was bound to come: The Prescott Unified School District is at a crossroads. With 200 fewer students this year than last, the funding crunch and $2 million shortfall are going to require some kind of dire action.

Some of the proposals range from closing schools in neighborhoods where disadvantaged children greatly benefit from their proximity to walk to and from them, to going to a four-day school week. Cuts usually result in fewer teachers and larger classes in the end.

It's the prerogative of public school students to switch to charter schools, but the trend toward funding private schools and charter schools at the expense of public schools in Arizona has become a drain on many rural districts, including Prescott - particularly since voters defeated the tax override.

Diane Ravitch, one of the early proponents of private and charter schools as alternatives to public education has done a complete about-face. Her book "Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools" says the drive to privatize is creating an elitist education system in which children from wealthy and upper middle class homes receive a far better education than the lower middle class and poor.

Resources are being drained from public schools, resulting in larger class sizes, low teacher pay and a lack of resources like books and computers. We're seeing it up close here in Prescott, where one recently retired biology teacher told me she had only a few microscopes for her classes, making it impossible for students to learn properly.

Also, a retired Taylor Hicks fifth-grade teacher told me she pitied the first-grade teachers who were forced to teach as many as 30 students at a time how to read. That's one of the most challenging tasks any teacher can do, and Prescott's teachers are at a grave disadvantage. (The high teacher turnover rate is understandable.)

Also, minority students tend not to go to charter schools. The public/charter school racial divide has been documented by Jonathan Kozol, who has been teaching inner city kids for 40 years. His bestseller "The Shame of the Nation: the Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America" says children of color tend to be from poorer areas in cities and their schools are more racially divided than ever. With privatization, that is becoming true across the country in all areas.

American educator John Dewey said that, "Schools are the fundamental method of social progress and reform." In America, we are all supposed to have equal opportunity for the pursuit of happiness. Since one group is guaranteed a better education at the expense of another, that isn't equal.

Public schools have been under attack for years through programs that force teaching to tests, not individuals, but as Ravitch explains, the difference now is that corporations have a profit motive in pursuing what was formerly a purely public resource. Their aggressive lobbying to divert public funds toward their money-making ventures is succeeding in many states, including Arizona.

While our state constitution says public monies should only be used to fund public schools, the state legislature found a loophole in allowing citizens to target their "pre-tax" dollars as donations to schools. This has diverted over a billion dollars in tax credits and scholarships that would have gone to public schools.

In addition, the legislature cut education funding despite a public referendum requiring additional funding. Now that the courts have found the state at fault, the governor is crying poverty to try to sidestep the issue. It's simply wrong. If they really wanted to fund public education, they'd find a way.

Charter and private schools are not designed to serve all students. They serve those who already have advantages. They exclude disabled children, children who struggle with dyslexia or ADHD or language barriers and poor children who don't test well. (Or if they take them, they often find a way to drive them out.) Those who are different usually don't apply to these homogenous schools anyway.

Arizona is ranked nearly at the bottom in the United States for funding public education. It has the highest drop-out rate in the country. This hurts our children and our state in many ways.

People who don't have high school degrees earn less money over the course of their lifetimes. And now the unskilled are more likely to stay in poverty because of a lack of union jobs and a pitiful minimum wage.

Most of the Yavapai County jail inmates don't have high school degrees. Many are poor. Without a diploma, they are likely to stay that way. We need to ask ourselves if we prefer to build jails or support schools.

All Arizonans are affected by the lower incomes of drop-outs because it means less disposable income in the economy and the need for more government assistance. Also the lack of a well-educated populace means fewer companies see Arizona as an attractive place to locate. Jobs go elsewhere.

Unless we want to become a country where quality education is only for the well-to-do, we need to stop the ghettoization of public schools. Along with being an essential part of our communities, they provide cultural benefits - art classes, music, sports, debate club, theater, school newspapers, etc.

Even if you don't have children in the Prescott schools - and I don't - I urge you to support public education with your votes for candidates who do. It's an investment in the community and the future of Arizona.

Toni Denis is a freelance journalist, a five-year Prescott resident and chairwoman of the Democratic Women of the Prescott Area.