Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Chicago’s Arctic Freeze Brings Up the Question: What is the Purpose of Schools?

An interesting discussion broke out over the recent announcement by the Chicago Public Schools to keep schools open despite a dangerous extreme cold snap hitting the city, a decision which they later reversed thanks in part to pressure from the Chicago Teachers Union.

On social media, many worried that closing schools would be detrimental to the neediest families.  Many claimed, rightfully-so, that school was often the only place where kids could get a hot meal and a warm, safe environment.

And this controversy really hit home for me how much we have come to view schools as the only comprehensive form of poverty alleviation in our society.  This argument regarding schools has become so second-nature to many, that we never stop and think about what this really means.

Here is what I wrote on my facebook page regarding the decision:
Everyone is in an uproar about kids not having a place to be warm, safe, and to get meals, if schools are closed tomorrow. Where is the outrage that these same needy kids don't have those basic services all the other times that school is not in session? We should be filling the streets in protest knowing that any child ever goes hungry or cold in this city, but instead we've been conditioned to conflate this issue with schools. They are not the same thing!
If we as a society truly want schools to be where we combat poverty, then we must take that task seriously. That means funding schools to be places of social services.  And I don’t mean leaving that job up to already over-worked administrators and teachers to write grants or solicit online donations, or for parents and community groups to hold fund-raisers always scrounging and begging.  Schools are public spaces and I have no problem with that space serving multiple functions such as becoming health clinics, food depositories, warming/cooling centers, community centers, and providing mental health supports,.  (Heck, all those "underutilzed" schools would be a great place to implement these programs.  Whoops, already closed most of them down...)  But all of these programs require serious money and staff to operate.

Now, even if we did implement all the wraparound services mentioned above, that is merely addressing the symptoms, not the cause.  The only way to truly make a dent in poverty is to end the growing inequality in this country.  Tax the wealthy, demand a higher minimum wage, rein in Wall St, invest in public services including affordable housing, free and universal health care, and true equitable funding in education.  Can we really not, at the very minimum, protect children from the traumas of poverty?  

Since we seem unable to even conceive of these changes, then we must fund schools to be the band-aids they are constantly asked to be.  Give the neediest schools the most money.  And then do not complain about the costs of education.  Other countries provide for their citizens through social services.  Finland’s schools aren't expected to be anything other than a school.  

Let our schools be schools.  Principals and teachers in low-income schools should not have to be responsible for all the needs of the kids and their families.  Many schools and individuals take on this task because they know that not having access to these basic services makes their job of educating children near impossible.  But frankly, educators are not trained to be doctors or social workers or charity workers.  And they shouldn't have to be.  

It amazes me how normalized poverty is in our country.  We cannot imagine a world which actually takes care of our kids.  The idea that closing down schools in a weather emergency would put kids in danger should be an eye-opener.  The fact that no one blinked an eyelash when private schools and suburban districts across the affected states all immediately decided to close schools, but were outraged that people wanted CPS to have the same consideration for student and staff safety.  Everybody knows the difference between those schools.  Poverty, it always comes down to poverty.

Schools cannot pick up all the burdens of our cruel, racist, unequal country.  And we need to stop expecting them to.