Sunday, February 5, 2012

Education for All (Who Want It); or, Skipping School Pays in the Long Run

I love that moment at dawn when Katie's not quite awake. Between dreams and the real world. She says the best things, funny and often insightful. Things that come to people in their dreams but quickly fade upon awakening.

My favorite was when she was three: "I like blue popsicles. Dey taste like the sky."

Just the other day she said, "If I had a world of my own the babies would drink chocolate milk."

Other days she says things that make me sad. Like when she asks, "Mama, why can't I be an All-Day Kid?"

Good question. Hard to answer.

Similarly, a friend in my political discussion group asked what we think about Kansas Governor Brownback’s recent decision to cut food aid to the children of illegal immigrants. I was expecting to be one of only a high school shop teacher’s handful of people to respond sympathetically to the kids. Instead, everyone responding agreed this is a horrible decision. Even conservative Libertarians can see that such a miniscule amount of money saved is not worth letting kids go hungry.

My friend Janel, a big Ron Paul fan who usually rants about the wasteful ways of our federal government, instead went off about how Brownback also recently cut the budget at her local mental health clinic. Patients who aren’t on Medicaid and yet can’t afford to pay for services are now sent away without their meds. "I'm all for budget cuts, but why these areas first?" she asked.

She's right. Balancing the budget on the backs of the disenfranchised while refusing to ask his wealthy friends to carry any of the burden is flat out wrong.

Our dear governor also refused to accept a $31M federal health exchange grant that would help people who aren’t poor enough to quality for Medicaid but who can’t afford to pay for their own health insurance. Why would he do that? Spite, it seems to me. How immature. His party lost a playground dodgeball game they call Obamacare so Brownback refuses to slap the winning team’s hand at the end and say, “Good game, good game” even though doing so would help his constituents.

Even more than showing poor sportsmanship, Brownback’s dismissal of these important social services shows that his foremost concern is for people in the upper echelons of society. Who cares about kids and sick people, right? They don't make money. In Brownback's eyes only the most wealthy—campaign contributors and lobbyists—are worthy of his concern. Everyone else has to fend for themselves.

People like Katie and her fellow Half-Day Kids. And really the All-Day Kids too. The wedge the current system has created between the kids who go home early and the kids who stay all day is damaging to both teams. Katie admitted when I asked her how the All-Day Kids feel that some of them cry "I wanna go home too" when the Half-Day Kids are escorted to their moms and dads.

Katie's school lost government funding for all-day kindergarten. They didn’t do away with the program. But now parents have to pay $300 per month for their child to be an All-Day Kid. We can't afford that. If we were eligible for the free or reduced price lunch program, we'd have to pay just $90 or nothing for all-day kindergarten, depending on our income. We're not quite poor enough to qualify for that. We're stuck in the middle.

So our kid was forced to join the Half-Day Kids team. At first I didn’t think it was a big deal. Will and I were both Half-Day Kids, only back then everyone was. They also didn’t start teaching us how to read until first grade. Now Katie’s teacher sends home a booklet and a worksheet every day to practice reading and writing. Homework in kindergarten. Every day. It's a good thing she gets booted out of school early so she has time to do it.

I asked her teacher if she thought Katie would miss out academically by only going a half day when most of her peers got to go all day. She assured me most of what they do in the afternoon is review, so I shouldn’t worry. Katie’s a bright kid. She’ll do fine.

But I never thought to ask Katie how she felt about it. We didn’t send Katie to preschool until seven months before she started kindergarten, and then it was just a one-hour-a-week “school skills” class at Gymboree. So I was concerned that Katie might have trouble handling school for even three hours a day let alone seven. I imagined her not being able to sit still, wanting to do her own thing, not listening or responding to directions. You know, basically acting like she acts at home. Like a normal five year old. I was afraid we had been too lenient with her, let her do as she pleased too much and she wouldn’t be able to handle formal education.

She proved me wrong again. Katie loves school. Perhaps because we gave her so little structure, she eats it up now. Every day when I pick her up from school it’s, “Mama, why can’t I be an All-Day Kid?” Like she's losing a prize.

The decision to cut funds for all-day kindergarten has caused a chasm to develop in Katie's mind. On one side, the good side, are the All-Day Kids. On the other side, the bad side, are the Half-Day Kids.

"Why does So-And-So get to be an All-Day Kid but I have to be a Half-Day Kid?" Katie whines.

"I don't know, Sweetie. Maybe So-And-So's parents have to go away to their jobs during the day and they need to keep So-And-So in school because they won't be home to take care of him."

"You should go back to work full time." Pow! The verbal punches of a five year old who knows not the strength of them.

But I won't. I can barely manage to stay sane working part time while trying to also be a writer and a good mom. I've had a cold more on than off for a month now. I have a gigantic seemingly volcanic eruption growing on my chin that looks like the acne I had when I was a stressed out teenager. I do a load of dishes and yet still there's another load of dirty ones waiting in the sink. I get a load of laundry put away and turn around to find another load on the floor. I feel like I can't keep up.

“It’s not fair!” Katie complains. And she’s right. For both of us. If she was in school all-day, I'd have more alone time to write, and writing is the number one thing that helps me stay sane. It's true. I have a doctor's note to prove it.

The crazy thing is, if I quit my job at the library, we'd be poor enough to qualify for the reduced tuition. That's a broken system when working people can afford less education for their children than unemployed people can. Any kid should have the opportunity to have a quality education if he or she wants it. It shouldn't matter how much money that kid's parents make.

But just because the system's broken doesn't mean it can't be fixed. We just need Governor Brownback to add funding to our public schools rather than take it away.

The solution to the complaint that it's not fair to give children of illegal immigrant parents food when other people who are here legally work hard for their food is not to take away food from kids. It's to make sure everyone, no matter what income, is satisfied. No one should envy someone else's supply of food.

The solution to the complaint that it's not fair to give children whose parents are poor all-day kindergarten isn't to take away all-day kindergarten from poor kids. It's to make sure everyone, no matter what income, has adequate opportunities for education.

With the emphasis on opportunities. We should allow kindergartners to decide if they want to go to school all-day or not. We should also allow older kids to decide how they want their education to be. I don't agree with President Obama that we should force kids to stay in school until they're eighteen. Some kids learn better on their own. Some kids view school as confining. Even the same kids who love it so much they want to go all day.

This morning's awakening aphorism from Katie made me smile:

"Mama, is jail kinda like school?"

"What do you mean?"

"Like you have to do what they say and follow the rules and learn from your mistakes?"

She had been watching "Robin Hood" before bed. I imagine the movie had been replaying in her head all night, making her wonder about the poor people in jail.

I was enrolled in school until I was eighteen but I can't really say I "stayed" in school. I skipped so much school, administration didn't know what to do with me. My mom mostly just shrugged her shoulders. What could she do? I aced my tests. I was on the honor roll. So what if I didn't show up to class? That was my attitude. How could she change it?

Taking opportunities away from a child hinders learning, but so does forcing a student to take the opportunity. Especially students between the ages of sixteen and eighteen, a time when everyone undergoes tremendous hormonal fluctuations. Not to mention the sad fact that many teens have unhealthy home lives. Teens in crisis should be forgiven for the poor life decisions they make during a time when they can't comprehend life will ever get better.

Some kids need extra time to work on coping skills before they're ready to prepare for a career. Perhaps if we're honestly concerned about high school kids who want to drop out, we should allow them to quit school so they can begin their alternative journey to self-discovery instead of wasting everyone's time and money in public school. Maybe we could offer a life skills class when a student decides to drop out of school.

I wish I had a class like that when I was struggling just physically being at school. Part of the reason I think I was surprised by how much Katie loves going to school is because I didn't want to go.

I was an emotional wreck. My home life was unhealthy. I had mental illness issues. It was hard just to get out of bed some days. Often after showing up to take a test, I'd have to leave school because I couldn't stop crying. Not because I bombed the test. I felt like life was bombing me. Middle school through high school was by far the worst time of my life.

When I got out on my own, I discovered I'm reasonably smart and I figured out how to make a life for myself. Every decade, things get better. But I didn't know that when I was a dumb kid skipping school.

Kids should have options. All-day school, half-day school, or homeschool. I'm glad the homeschooling option has become popular today. I had never heard of such a thing when I was in school. I would have done well as a homeschooler I think. Although maybe not. I probably would have just done the same thing I did when I skipped school: sat in my room all day listening to The Smiths, smudging the ink on the pages of my diary with my tears, dreaming of the day I'd be a professional writer.

***

Epilogue

I began writing this blog post a few days ago. I got too sick to finish it, so it sat in my draft folder as I slept for days.

When I awoke two amazing things happened.

We filed our taxes and discovered we are getting a bigger refund than we had expected. Just enough to pay for the last three months' tuition for Katie to be an All-Day Kid.

She's thrilled. She drew this picture when she heard the news:

"Katie's Last Day Being A Half-Day Kindergartner"

Here's the second amazing thing. It's official: I am a professional writer.

While I slept, Google, owner of Blogger, deposited $1.00 into my checking account for my share of the ad revenue for this blog. I've been posting essays to This Ambiguous Life for six months. At this rate I might make two whole bucks this year.

See kids. Skipping school pays in the long run.