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Inspiring innovation: America’s duty to its public education system

| Thursday, October 27, 2016

I started getting involved in my community in the fall of 2006 at the age of nine. My local public school district in Ohio was on the brink of financial ruin, and the local community was being asked to support a property tax increase to help ease the financial stress. The district had received state funding cuts; therefore, academic programming had been cut to the bare bones: no art, no music and no P.E. classes. Athletic fees were over $300 per sport and class sizes were up to their highest levels in school district history. The impact this had on my community was both immediate and devastating. Families were moving out in masses, businesses were closing and we were becoming the community that people didn’t want to live in.
My mother was, and still is, an administrator in this district, and my aunt was a teacher at the time and is now assistant principal of the high school. Being close to the situation and seeing the human costs of budget cuts, it hurt me to see my community falling on its knees, and more importantly failing its children. I helped fight for the passage of those school levies (most of which failed) and the many that would follow — mostly because, at the time, I wanted to support my mom. Looking back, however, I realize that those budget cuts were impacting my education and the quality of the schools I was attending. I was watching as the soul was being ripped out of my community that I had grown to love.
Public K-12 education is a sensitive issue in Ohio today. Our public school funding formula has been found unconstitutional by the Ohio Supreme Court. In the most notable court case in 1997, DeRolph v. State, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that the current state funding system for public schools was unconstitutional. On March 24, 1997, Justice Francis E. Sweeney wrote for the majority, saying: “By our decision today, we send a clear message to lawmakers: The time has come to fix the system. Let there be no misunderstanding. Ohio’s public school-financing scheme must undergo a complete systematic overhaul.”
Ten years later, it still has not been fixed.
My district eventually passed a levy in 2007, and it has since been renewed twice by voters. We are now on the ballot again, on November 8th, to help fund the construction of two new elementary school buildings. I am proud of my district for working its way out of financial distress, but we still have our work cut out for us. Through this difficult process of fighting for more funding, I found a passion of mine in fighting for public education, and I found my voice. I hope to inspire more Americans in finding their voice on this issue, which is why I am writing this today.
We, as a nation, are failing our children. The majority of America’s students are educated by public schools, yet our public schools consistently rank average or below average in comparison to other nations. Ohio’s struggles mirror the nation’s: how do we find a fair funding system that adequately funds public education, while still remaining fiscally responsible to taxpayers? How do we establish standards that will increase student performance while still inspiring our students to innovate? How do we evaluate our teachers for accountability while taking into consideration other factors that are outside of a teacher’s control? These questions remain in reforming the American education system.
Recently, at the mock presidential debate, an argument was made that we should provide vouchers for some of the students in low-performing schools, allowing the “smarter students” to go to better schools. What about the other students that would be left behind? We cannot and should not leave those kids behind. We have to quit running away from the problems facing our schools — moving kids around isn’t solving a problem … reforming the schools themselves is. Reform will come through curriculum and standard enhancement, funding reform and increases, and an increased focus on teacher development and appreciation.
Common Core is discussed a great deal in politics today, and it is highly contested. While there are very specific problems within Common Core, a strong national standards system helps to create a fair and equitable education system across our country, no matter the zip code. A strong national standard helps create comparability amongst American schools and accountability in classroom performance. We need more accountability in our system because our kids deserve nothing but the best and failing teachers and schools demand to be held accountable.
Discrepancies in funding and ability to increase revenue based on zip code creates an inequitable and unfair system — a system that lets kids in wealthier areas receive a quality education, while the poorer school districts continue to cut and find unique ways to provide education to their students despite the lack of funding. This is not fair, and this is not helping build bridges out of poverty.
Every child in this country deserves access to a quality public education. Every child in this country deserves an equal opportunity at inspiration and innovation. Every child in this country deserves to be educated in a safe school where they can learn to express themselves and discover their passions. It is our responsibility, as a country, to educate these children and give them the foundation to succeed in life.
The American Public Education system is the great equalizer; it is the bridge out of poverty for millions of children. We have an obligation to our children and to our future to build and maintain a strong public education system. I believe in our public schools, I believe in our teachers, I believe in all of our students. We must support them, and we must help them build a stronger future for all of America, not just those that can afford to attend other schools. It is our moral and civic duty to help build bridges to the middle class, and public education proves to be the widest and most accessible bridge of all.
Corey Gayheart
Oct. 26

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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