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Alabamians must support public education

CW / Kylie Cowden

Emma Royal

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I grew up in the small town of Opelika, Alabama, sitting in the middle of Lee County 15 minutes from the front door of Auburn University. I attended Opelika High School, home to just over 1200 students in grades 9 through 12. According to the 2010 census, 20 percent of children living in Lee County are living in poverty. Twenty percent of Lee County children may not know where their next meal is coming from. Twenty percent of Lee County children’s parents may forego birthdays to pay rent. Twenty percent of Lee County children may rely solely on academic support from the public education system because their parents have to work two jobs to make ends meet and cannot help with their homework after school. To qualify for reduced lunch, a family’s income must be lower than 185 percent of the federal poverty level. For free lunch, below 130 percent. Sixty-four percent of kids in my school meet those standards.

I was very lucky in that I did not have to face these challenges. Growing up there were always meals on my table, presents on my birthday and free tutoring courtesy of my father on the night before the big test. I worried about college applications. A lot of people I took classes with didn’t even know if they were going to be able to afford application fees. Because of these advantages, I, and many of my friends and neighbors in similar situations, exhibit a degree of privilege.

There are many misconceptions about privilege, but the most glaring is that those who are privileged are inherently bad people. Most privileges are not hand-picked. We don’t choose to be born able-bodied or well-off or in a school district that is outfitted with all of the right tools for success. Privilege is not a bad thing, especially if you acknowledge your privilege and use it to help others who are not so lucky. One of the best ways to become a force for good in the education system is to support local public schools and legislation that works to fund and improve them.

The ACT Aspire is a standardized test designed to measure how a school is preparing its students for college and the workforce, recently implemented for every 3rd-10th grader in the state of Alabama. Unsurprisingly, in schools with higher numbers of children who qualify for free and reduced lunch, students were far more likely to receive a score demonstrating a need for academic attention. The reasons for this are quite obvious. These children are more likely to live with single parents, grandparents, or other family members due to outside circumstances. Blue-collar working parents are not able to help their children with their schoolwork because they often work long hours, sometimes at multiple jobs. In the same way, a tutor is not high up on the financial priority list for those same families, and older students may be required to get a job themselves in order to support the family instead of being able to focus fully on schoolwork. Those attending schools with zero students qualifying for free or reduced lunch made much higher scores, the highest being 92 percent of students meeting or exceeding standards.

School choice, a system where parents may use their tax dollars that would otherwise go to funding public schools for credits at private institutions, is a pillar of Secretary of Education Betsy Devos’s plan for education reform for her term in office. The system is intended to eliminate inequality of education so that students may attend the best possible school for their needs. However, funding is stripped from public schools, which are already frequently seen as underfunded and overcrowded. Extracurricular programs like sports and the arts will be the first victims of budget cuts. These after-school programs can be the only reasons that kids much like the ones I went to school alongside continue to make good grades and stay in school until they graduate. Though I am not in favor of this policy, there are several facets to the issue that demonstrate why the concept may be popular among some voters.

Some schools, public, private or otherwise, may be able to better accommodate a student with disabilities than others. School choice begins to sound rather appealing for some parents, especially those who may not be able to afford better schools for their children who genuinely need them. Unfortunately, private institutions are not subject to governmental regulation in terms of pricing, meaning that private schools are free to adjust their tuition rates so that those attending them may still have to pay more than they can afford so that their children can receive the help they need, even with a tax credit.

The solution to inequality of education in public schools is not abandoning them altogether. Public schools are often more diverse and more conveniently located for those living in public housing. Public schools also have fixed costs for operation, such as electricity or payments on the space occupied by the school building. Those costs do not decrease when students withdraw from the system and take their tax dollars elsewhere. As a result, funding is pulled for after-school activities, many of which work to improve test scores and prepare students for life after high school. So instead of implementing education plans that marginally improve the lives of a few, we must focus on funding the public systems we already have so that our children may be educated effectively and efficiently.

Emma Royal is a freshman majoring in aerospace engineering. Her column runs biweekly. 

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Alabamians must support public education