First Person

Voices: If education is too expensive, continue to support

Project VOYCE Co-training director Shelby Gonzales-Parker argues that Amendment 66’s increased investment in education will pay off down the road.

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In just over 24 hours, we will know if Coloradans were able to make the bold move of implementing the newest education reform initiative, “Amendment 66,” which would change the entire formula for how Colorado finances education. There will be an increase in state taxes, creating almost one billion dollars that would go directly into education the first year. Reporters, legislators, business leaders, school-board members, parents, and educators have all taken sides on Amendment 66 and have provided their input on why they do or do not support it. By November 5th, their votes will be counted. However, we haven’t heard much from students and how they feel about this piece of legislation, which will impact them more directly than anyone else involved. That is where I come in.

My name is Shelby Gonzales-Parker. As the first member of my family to attend college, I am currently a junior at Metropolitan State University of Denver, majoring in English, Secondary Education.  My goal is to become a teacher in the Denver Public Schools. In 2010, I graduated from Denver Justice High School as the first valedictorian the school ever had. I became an advocate for education reform as a sophomore in high school when I was hired with Project VOYCE (Voices of Youth Changing Education) in 2008.  Alternative charter schools and Project VOYCE are the two places that not only saw leadership potential in me, but also helped cultivate the leader would become.

In May of 2004, one of my older brothers, whom I looked up to all my life, Levi, was killed in a car accident when he was only 17 years old. My life and the view I had on life changed forever. After only a year of Levi passing, I was expelled from my middle school, put on probation for multiple offenses, and was told I was an “at-risk” student. Although I always excelled academically, my behavior and lack of resources labeled me as a student that was destined to fail. After being sent to an alternative school, two educators told me I could be the change I wished to see, if I took my education seriously and made a difference in my community. I was never suspended again.  Shortly thereafter, I decided to become a teacher and was hired by Project VOYCE. I also became a single mother, at the age of 17, to a beautiful baby boy who I named Levi after my brother.  In 2010, Governor Ritter appointed me as the first and only student on the Colorado State Council for Educator Effectiveness, leading the work and recommendations around SB-191. For the two years I served, I represented all 840,000 Colorado students.

So what does this have to do with Amendment 66? Well, I’d like to say, EVERYTHING.

If passed, Amendment 66 would increase taxes from 4.63 percent to 5 percent and 5.9 percent after the first year for anyone earning $75,000 or more a year. Although Colorado would still be one of the last states in the country for the amount we pay in state taxes (eighth lowest), people are still skeptical about putting additional money into education. Although education has one of the highest rates of return on investment, the fear remains, about putting additional money into something and not being guaranteed any change.

However, in a state with barely half of all students graduating on time, and a growing number of students entering juvenile systems every day, this investment is a risk we need to take. The success of our children and our future economy is well worth the additional amount each individual will have to pay annually.

With this amendment comes a new financing formula that will finally take steps to level the playing field for all children in Colorado. Cost of living will no longer be accounted for, and the amount of low income students and English Language Learners will be the main factor in determining how much money each district NEEDS. Therefore, districts with the highest amount of poverty and English language learners will benefit the most. The money will be directed specifically to education initiatives such as early childhood education, full-day kindergarten, charter schools, smaller class sizes, etc. Districts and principals will have more autonomy over the additional money they receive and a public website will be created to be transparent about how each school is allocating their dollars.

As a former Denver Public Schools student who experienced the struggle of attending multiple underserved schools, I believe this is something we desperately need to improve the quality of our education system.

The intention is not to take opportunity away from people, but instead to give it to those who have very little. If it were not for the alternative education I was able to receive or the outside resources my school introduced me to, I would not be where I am today. I know more people dead, in jail or in prison than I know who graduated or made it to college and I don’t want that future for my son.

It isn’t fair that I made it while so many others didn’t. Currently in Colorado there are more than 1,600 youth locked up in juvenile facilities which costs on average $161 each day, per youth. That equals about $260,000 per day we are spending to lock up our youth. Now let’s look at adults. According to a recent study done by the VERA Institute of Justice, in Colorado it costs an average of $30,000 per year to incarcerate one inmate. Colorado taxpayers are paying $606.2 million a year to support prisons and to keep people incarcerated. And yet, when it comes to education, we are among the last states for the amount we spend per student (about $6,600 compared to the national average of $10,700 per student.)

Is this what we want to be known for in Colorado? Is it the American thing to put more money into prisons than schools and to stand silent while children from low income families begin their lives and education way behind the starting line? Speaking for the students and my son, I say no. Under-funding education hurts all students and every taxpayer for decades to come. Providing children with a quality education and the resources they need, will prevent them from entering the juvenile system, and would therefore mean less money that would need to go into prisons.

If we want to teach our children to be caring, responsible, critical thinkers, successful at whatever they do, than we need to set the example and give them that opportunity. If we want schools and educators to be effective, they need the resources to make it happen. According to a recent report by A+ Denver, in Denver Public Schools, 50 percent of white students scored a 23 or higher on their ACT while only 6 percent of Latinos and 7 percent of African Americans scored a 23 or above (in 2012.) Clearly, there is an achievement gap that needs to be closed and without giving more resources to those truly in need, we will never see that happen. With that said I am voting YES on Amendment 66 and encourage you to do the same.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.