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Public schools should be the great equalizer

Daily Hampshire Gazette - 5/16/2018

If you live in Easthampton, like I do, you are probably sick of hearing about the May 22 vote for a new pre-kindergarten to Grade 8 school.

I’m not going to spend my time trying to convince you that we have to replace the three, 100-plus-year-old, not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act elementary schools. Nor will I spend my time explaining why a 43-year-old middle school that is sinking into the ground and had to close for a few days this winter because the heating system failed, is a bad place for your children to learn math and science. And don’t even get me started on the state of the carpeting in the classrooms.

This stuff is common sense. Kids learn better if they are in agreeable surroundings. Heck, I’d even take decent ones at this point. The truth is, we’ve kicked this can down the road for much longer than we should have and no matter what we do, we will have to pay for new school buildings.

Waiting longer inevitably means that the costs for construction will rise. Trying to work on one building at a time will end up costing the city more in the long run without the benefits that we would get from the new school proposal. The time to do this is now.

That said, I do recognize that an increase in our property taxes will be a challenge for people to bear. Those on fixed incomes will have a difficult time figuring out how to stretch their precious dollars to afford this. This is reality and it will not be easy. Unfortunately, the answer is not to do nothing.

I’ve spoken to a number of people who say they aren’t going to vote for a new school because they don’t have kids in the school system. To me, this is an irrational argument, which I counter with the claim that providing sound, up-to-date, public schools for the community’s children is actually good for us all.

Why do we even care about public schools in the first place?

The United States bills itself as a land of opportunity, where anyone can have a chance to be successful if they apply themselves and work hard. Our public schools are supposed to be the great equalizer and gateway to opportunity, but they are not.

As someone who is tasked with helping first-year students acclimate to college, I experience firsthand that all public school students are not equally prepared to go to college. Public school districts in poor communities typically have lower SAT scores and offer fewer Advanced Placement classes, whereas young people from more wealthy districts have top-of-the-line technology in their classrooms and opportunities to participate in more college preparation activities. Students from poorer districts come to college less prepared to succeed. Those who are not well-prepared for college are likely not well-prepared for life.

This matters for our common future. We will turn to the younger generations as we grow older and need care. They are the future leaders of our country and the world. We are literally relying on them to fix the problems we have created. I know that I want smart, well-educated people in these roles.

Clearly, just voting for a new school in Easthampton is not going to solve all of the problems facing public education. The way that school districts are funded in Massachusetts is fundamentally flawed. The current funding structure for our public schools in Massachusetts, largely based on income generated by property taxes, only serves to reinforce the inequity in the public school system.

In 2015, a legislative commission studied the commonwealth’s school funding formula and determined that districts were expected to pay much more than they should have, resulting in serious opportunity gaps across the state. Nothing has yet been done to remedy this.

On May 22 in Easthampton, we have the opportunity to take the first step toward improving education for our youngest residents. I urge you to vote “yes” for the new pre-kindergarten to Grade 8 school.

For change over the long run, we also have to be willing to elect legislators who are not afraid to take on this system and reform it. Until then, we will be left paying too much of the burden.

Jackie Brousseau-Pereira, of Easthampton, is the academic dean and director of first-year seminars in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at UMass Amherst.


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