American Education is a Farce

I want to talk about education. It’s a personal hot button issue because at one time I was a student, at one time I was a teacher, and I’ve long been the significant other of a college professor who can’t find work as a college professor. I’ve seen it from all the sides, and honestly all sides have gotten pretty shitty.

Last week, Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed that students from New York families making under $125k annually would be eligible for free college educations from any SUNY 2 or 4 year school, a proposal that could begin as early as fall of 2017. This of course is pending a NYS legislative vote- so, who knows if we’ll ever see it. The idea of free public universities is not new, and there are already states like Tennessee that have made community college tuition-free to residents. I guess I wasn’t surprised to hear the outcry from an ever-grumbling public about how they’re first and foremost concerned about their own taxes being raised. That seems to be the battle cry these days. “What about MY PAYCHECK?” “I WORK HARD. Other people should get off their asses and save money for college like I did!” What these folks are missing is that the main burden of any tax increase would mostly effect the top tier of earners, like the top, top tier. I only know a handful of people in that tax bracket, and I know if I ever make it up there, I would gladly give extra if it meant that I could help even one person improve their life.  Even if I don’t make it to the top of that mountain (not looking good, more on that later,) I am glad to help share the burden- especially if it means my kids have access to higher education. I am one of the few lucky ones who had parents who worked their butts off to help eliminate my college debt. BUT then I married into college debt that will exist until we die. It’s a ton. And my husband isn’t even able to work in his field. More on that later, too.
What frustrates me is the immediate beeline to the idea that people who could use some assistance for a positive thing like a college education are somehow lazy, unemployed, entitled, or some other insulting classification. I wish our first thought wouldn’t be a, “I’m not working my ass off to pay for someone else’s problem,”mentality and more of a “How can I help?” That’s probably a pipe dream. The more I see of this angry reaction- especially coming from my own peers who will be saddled with student debt of their own for years, even decades- the more I worry about society.
I recently read a piece from The Atlantic (which I plan to chat about in another post) that provided me the best understanding I’ve had this whole time for folks on the other side of the political divide. I won’t pretend to understand a lot of what comes from the mouths of Trump supporters, but this article helped bring some of their reasonings home. I tend to (?unfairly?) label a Trump supporter as a hateful person who will subscribe to just about any idiocy broadcasted by a man who I believe to be highly unprepared for the job at hand. Maybe I should spend more time assuming that those people are in the minority. (Please, CHANGE MY MIND. I’m open to it!) The people I read about today are living in rural Pennsylvania who are small business owners and farmers struggling to pay for health insurance through the Affordable Care Act (aka, Obamacare.) These are people living paycheck to paycheck, and then mandated to pay nearly $700 a month for single coverage. That is horrible, and I know it’s a reality for many. I get how that can make a person desire change.
Here’s what I know. I know that my husband (with a PhD) and I (with a Master’s degree) are also living paycheck to paycheck. We don’t own a home. We don’t go on vacations. We don’t wear designer clothes. We are just doing what we can to rebuild our savings after a year of searching for work in his field, and 3 months of maternity leave. We are lucky to have health insurance through my employer, but it is expensive. We spent my entire pregnancy dealing with a high deductible, and are still paying off hospital bills from the delivery. It feels like we can’t get ahead. I live in New York. I pay taxes. We both believe in working hard and contributing to society. Yet, financially, we are unable to move forward. I believe a lot of people are in similar situations. I think the only difference is, I don’t blame the past administration for where we are today. I’m not sure the incoming one will improve things. I will be pleasantly surprised if they do. Today, after reading that article, I can finally find some common ground with people I don’t politically agree with.
Whoops. That got way off topic. What I was trying to say is I am among the thousands and thousands of college students who are facing decades of loan repayments, and for what? If my daughter was of college age and told me she wasn’t sure she wanted to go to college right away, I’d have to tell her that’s fine by me. I believe in a college education, but we are doing it all wrong here. If we can provide the opportunity for future students to actually be able to make a living beyond paycheck to paycheck, AND help educate members of a more enlightened society, why wouldn’t we do that?

Also last week, I heard something on NPR about a supposed teacher shortage in the Western New York region. I only caught the end of the interview, so I missed a lot of the details, but all I could think was, “ARE YOU BEING SERIOUS RIGHT NOW!?” Where is there a teacher shortage? Buffalo Public Schools? Okay. Maybe. Rural districts? Show me. I know at least 10 teachers who would gladly take those positions (my PhD-carrying husband, included.) When I hear the bullshit about the high need areas of math, science, and special education, my rage factor increases tenfold. When I lived in Michigan it was my former-engineer, math-and-science-certified friend who couldn’t get a job. She is now a stay at home mom. Here in Western New York, I watch my sister-in-law continuously passed over for full time positions in the districts she regularly subs for. She, too had to decide if making minimum wage for another few years (or more) was worth it. When I became a teacher, I took the first job that was offered to me: my own 5th grade classroom in a charter school, run by the corporate National Heritage Academies. If that is what it’s like to be teacher, I was not impressed. The rest of my time in education was spent working as a teacher assistant to young high-risk students, many of whom should have been receiving specialized attention that I was not trained to give. The people in universities and on school boards crying for a workforce worth retaining should spend more time on the front lines. The teachers that do have jobs are paid squat, spend their own money and hours of personal time just to meet standards, and are constantly scrutinized by parents and administration. If there really is a teacher shortage somewhere, it’s because teaching isn’t what it used to be. Until Western New York (and the entire country) can incentivize veteran teachers to retire, move in some fresh, inspired young educators, pay them a wage reflective of what they actually do for society, and give them the support and resources they need to be successful… this situation will continue to worsen until there really aren’t any teachers left.

Higher Education
So, people pay a lot for college as we discussed before. Universities make a LOAD of money off of those students and dump it into their campuses, sports teams, and marketing efforts. Unless you are in the crumbling upper echelon of professors who’ve been at it for 25+ years, your loan money is going towards paying adjunct instructors- many of whom have jumped around with one or two year contracts in hopes of earning tenure track- and aren’t even being paid benefits to do so. I just want everyone to think for a minute about that. We have created the most indebted student population in history, and the money we are paying is going to… stadium improvements? The professor who is also your college club organizer, intramural coach and adviser is also likely being paid under $25,000 a year to do it all. And the vicious cycle of inequality in education at every level continues…
These opinions are mine, and they’re formulated from life experience. There probably are lazy, entitled students out there taking out indefinite federal loans because they are too scared to graduate and hopefully find a job. There are also horrifically bad teachers out there, and they should move on to another profession. Yes, there are some university professors making $100,000 a year, but I promise you, these are not the norms. The norms we’ve created are: make it hard for teachers to be teachers, make it hard for students to be students, and make it hard for young people to thrive. Something does have to change, and it starts with us being willing to contribute to the good of ALL.

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