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Class Notes
The politics of education
(Published June 3, 2002)

By H. WELLS WULSIN

On April 15, throngs of D.C. residents congregated in Farragut Square to burn their federal tax forms in protest of the lack of a voting representative in either house of Congress. One of the largest blocs of disenfranchised voters anywhere in the industrialized world can be found right here in our nation’s capital. Violating the very principles of democracy and equality upon which it was founded, America denies more than half a million people — three-quarters of whom are minorities — a vote in its legislature.

As a teacher, it is impossible to ignore the political forces that affect our ability to provide high-quality education to all students. I spend most of my time trying to improve the conditions within my classroom: my own teaching techniques and the performance of my students. But large-scale policies and the school district’s resources often make a bigger difference in my students’ educational success than anything under my immediate control. I can’t help but wonder how our city and our schools would be different if a voting legislator represented D.C. residents in the federal government.

Limited political clout has meant that schools for poor people of color have been neglected while political priorities were shifted elsewhere. But as unconscionable as taxation without representation may be, the public schools would benefit more by another oft-rejected proposal: a Washington metropolitan area commuter tax.

Washington, D.C., is the only city in the country where there is no support from a state education budget which can tap into wealthy suburban districts. Many other inner city school districts grapple with the same problems that we do here, but D.C. is especially hamstrung by the siphoning of high incomes into Maryland and northern Virginia tax districts. Commuters working in D.C. benefit from services provided here, so it is reasonable that a portion of their taxable income go to the District.

We all have an interest in nurturing a vibrant urban life throughout the city — not just at museums and monuments. This will be possible only if we can pool the resources of everyone who takes advantage of the privileges of city life.

When public schools are starving for resources, even a small amount of financing can go a long way. At the Woodson Business and Finance Academy, which serves more than 200 students, the discretionary funds in our budget are less than half a starting teacher’s salary. That pittance has to cover all of our extra expenses, and it is simply not enough. We cannot hire substitutes, we cannot fix broken windows, we cannot purchase needed supplies.

Vivid in my mind is the contrast between this school and my own alma mater, a public high school in suburban Cincinnati, where tens of thousands of dollars are spent every year to host a lavish after-prom party for juniors and seniors. There can be no justification for such a wide disparity in the treatment of different children within the same nation.

Money is certainly not the only cure for an ailing school system, and any comprehensive plan to revitalize our schools will have to address educational issues on a number of fronts. Students and teachers must be held accountable for results, administrations must provide leadership and support, bureaucracies must be streamlined, teachers must collaborate, discipline must be enforced and academic standards must be raised. Dollars alone will not accomplish all of these goals, but if used wisely, financial investments can bring drastic changes.

Despite all appearances at some of our public schools, ours is not an impoverished nation. We are blessed to live in a land and in a time of great wealth. But access to this prosperity is limited, with many denied opportunity because of geography, ethnicity or — most commonly — education. If we wanted, we could guarantee every American child a decent primary and secondary education. In pursuit of military dominance, American citizens have committed some $60 billion to build a new fleet of F-22 fighter jets. Isn’t educating our youth — all of our youth — as high a priority as dropping bombs on the Axis of Evil? The numbers definitively say No. We aren’t willing to spend even half as much on President Bush’s Education Reform Bill ($26.5 billion). Providing decent education is possible, but it will require commitment – and it will require sacrifice.

If we are not willing to make that commitment, then we are choosing to live in a nation polarized into two separate sectors, divided by educational background. Those who are well-educated may claim that theirs is a society of equality – where jobs, colleges and promotions are available to all. This may be true, but it is a false standard of equality. A truly equal society is one in which citizens would be willing to let their own child trade places with any other child. I could not in good conscience send my own daughter to many of our nation’s under-privileged schools, so why should I let my neighbor send his daughter to one? Everyone supports education for their own children, but it is high time we demand quality education for all of our children.

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H. Wells Wulsin is a first-year high school teacher of chemistry and physics at the H.D. Woodson Academy of Business and Finance. Send stories, advice or questions to wulsin@gwu.edu.

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator