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Working for common good

By Kay McSpadden
Special to the Observer

The end of every school year is a contradiction of excitement and sorrow, particularly for those of us who teach graduating seniors. My seniors are the students I know best, partly because I teach them all year long – unlike most of my other students who are on a semester block schedule – and because the class is set up as a Socratic discussion group that demands a great deal of verbal give and take.

The curriculum is a rich mixture of literature, debate and writing, and it begins with Homer’s The Odyssey, our literal and symbolic jumping off point. I tell my seniors when I meet them in August that the book represents what we will do all year – journey to new worlds and wrestle with monsters.

And we do. The poetry and short stories and novels and plays and essays we read and discuss and write about threaten to overwhelm my seniors at times – or at least challenge them to work harder, dig deeper, and be more thoughtful in what they say and do. Learning to think critically isn’t easy, but watching them take that journey is the most rewarding thing I do as a teacher.

Next week is our last one together, and to celebrate the trip, we’ve been reading Arthur Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, a bookend to Homer’s story. An easy read, it’s something of a reward after the rigor of books such as Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman. It’s a provocative read, too, a cautionary tale about the necessity of change and the dangers involved when we do, a lesson particularly apt for students on the verge of leaving home.

Impact of budget shortfall

The warning about change resonates with me more than usual as this year winds down. Because of a district budget shortfall, the undergraduates in my high school will miss many familiar faces and programs when they return in the fall. We lost one of our foreign language programs as well as a well-regarded masonry class. We lost an instructor in our award-winning NROTC program, and our math department lost a teacher. The assistant principal responsible for testing and scheduling was let go. Our lead guidance counselor lost her job. We will have only one media specialist to serve almost 1,500 students.

The rest of the district is reeling as well. Elementary classrooms lost their teaching aides. The art and music programs were cut in half.

“Don’t bother to say anything about it,” a teacher who worked for years in business before coming to the high school advised me. “The recession hit everyone hard and the business people I know think teachers ought to suffer like everyone else.”

Except it isn’t teachers who suffer most when staff are laid off and programs are cut in education. The majority of children in my school district are poor. Now they face more inequities in opportunities. Our students will be hurt when they have more students crowding their math classes, when there’s little art or music, when the elementary teachers can’t attend to each struggling learner, when the librarian doesn’t have time to match a reluctant student with a book that could ignite a love of reading.

Our district wouldn’t have to make these kinds of decisions if the South Carolina legislators owned up to and remedied a mistake they made in 2006. Act 388 cut residential property taxes – the source of much of the operational funds for schools – and replaced the lost revenue with an extra penny on the dollar in sales taxes. The law also limits the ability of school districts and local governments to raise millage rates, and property value increases are capped at 15 percent every five years.

In a 2012 study from Clemson University entitled “Act 388 Revisited,” research associate Ellen Salzman and economics professor Holley Ulbrich concluded that poor districts in South Carolina have been disproportionately harmed by Act 388. That’s not a surprising conclusion – and it’s one legislators don’t dispute. They admit that the per pupil spending required by the Education Finance Act has not been fully funded by the required formula. But they show neither the political will nor the political courage to change, supporting instead measures such as charter schools and vouchers that take even more revenues from traditional public schools.

Virtues of service to community

I’m not sure when working for the common good fell out of favor, when private ambition became more of a virtue than service to the community, but the current antipathy toward public education harms us all. If a healthy, well-educated populace is the cornerstone of democracy, then investing in our children ought to be our priority. Their journey from childhood to the adults who will control our future is one we ignore at our peril.

Guest columnist Kay McSpadden is a high school English teacher in York, S.C., and author of “Notes from a Classroom: Reflections on Teaching.” Write her at kmcspadden@comporium.net.
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