A Personal Investment In Public Education: I Pay My Taxes, Isn't That Enough?

I don't use the American public education system directly. I attended a small girls' parochial school (30 in my graduating class), a private university and a private law school. I spend a small fortune to send my teenage children to schools with acceptance rates that mirror the Ivy League Colleges. So why did I recently apply to join the board of my local public high school, a sprawling institution with more than 2,700 students from 100 zip codes, that is embroiled in debate about how to finance busing half its students from outside the district as the budget shrinks?

As a practical matter, I was activated by two things. First, I read my friend Bim Ayandele's moving piece for this section of the Huffington Post about his response to Waiting for Superman, the education documentary by Davis Guggenheim. Second, I was reading my local newspaper and saw a small notice requesting applications for the board of the local high school. I noticed with interest that in addition to parent representatives, the school was looking for two community members who do not have children enrolled in the school.

I sat at my computer and began typing:
I have been active in charitable work to increase diversity in independent schools in the Los Angeles area, but have been looking for a way to aid our public school system, the backbone of our nation's educational system and the prerequisite for meaningful democracy. My teenage children attend private schools that have very small classes and tremendous resources. I hope in some way to help all children have access to the tools necessary to prepare them for full participation in the political, economic, cultural and social fabric of American society... I would be grateful to serve as a community representative on your Board of Directors.

My experience with the Independent Alliance for Minority Affairs in Los Angeles has introduced me to top educators whose schools are breeding grounds for young minds who easily gain acceptance to the top ranked universities in America and abroad. For the past ten years, Alliance students have received $52.3 million dollars in financial aid from member schools, and 100 percent of Alliance graduating seniors have gone on to college, often at Ivy League institutions.

It has been my honor to help open the doors of excellent independent schools to children of every race, ethnicity and socioeconomic background. This diversity is not only beneficial to the kids on scholarships, but to every child who gets to learn from his or her fellow classmates as they prepare to participate fully in an increasingly global and interconnected world. Children who attend these schools continue their education after high school and find economically and intellectually stimulating work as a result.

I will never forget listening to a lecture at an Alliance meeting by the Reveta Bowers, Head of The Center for Early Education. A recognized leader in her field, Bowers has served as president of the California Association of Independent Schools and treasurer of the National Association of Independent Schools. Dr. Bowers spoke about the abysmal failures of the California public educational system to educate and graduate our youth. Although official statistics put graduation rates at around 50 percent, Dr. Bowers revealed that the number is actually lower as the school system does a poor job of keeping track of families who move often.

And this disastrous graduation rate is not unique to Los Angeles. In a report on graduation rates around the country, the America Promise Alliance also showed that

"nationwide, nearly one in three U.S. high school students fails to graduate with a diploma. In total, approximately 1.2 million students drop out each year -- averaging 7,000 every school day or one every 26 seconds. Among minority students, the problem is even more severe, with nearly 50 percent of African American and Hispanic students not completing high school on time."

The American Promise Alliance report "Cities in Crisis 2009: Closing the Graduation Gap" also looked at the economic and employment landscape for those with varied educational levels, including those without a high school diploma. It revealed that

"those who drop out of high school are less likely to be steadily employed, and earn less income when they are employed, compared with those who graduate from high school. Approximately one-third (37 percent) of high school dropouts nationwide are steadily employed and are more than twice as likely to live in poverty. Nationally, high school dropouts were also the only group of workers who saw income levels decline over the last 30 years."

I like the starfish parable about the child who is saving a few from dying stranded on the sand by throwing as many as he can back into the water. An old man tells him his task is futile and that more starfish will be stranded by the tides than the boy could ever save. But the boy continues because every starfish he saves has significance despite the statistics. That metaphor certainly applies to every child who is saved through a great education. But I once heard a retelling of this parable by Jim Kennedy at the UCLA Lab School in which he said that his goal as school head was not just to save as many starfish as he could, but to raise the tide so that all the star fish have a chance.

That idea motivates me to move beyond my efforts to move selected students to exceptional schools that can practically guarantee success, but to dedicate myself as well to raising the tide for the majority of children at my local public school. I will continue with both endeavors because each child is precious, and "Justice delayed is Justice denied." It will take years and a great national shift in priorities to correct what ails our public school system.

I do have a personal desire to work toward the day that every child can have excellent educational experiences like my own children enjoy. I encourage my fellow Americans, regardless of your parental status or direct utilization of our tax supported public educational system, to consider making a personal commitment to public education in your community. Volunteer work, donations, charitable giving...there are so many ways to become active in the future of the next generation of American citizens. This investment is sure to pay off in many ways, including a greater connection between ourselves and those who will inherit this country.

Yesterday I received notice of my acceptance as a member of the local high school board! My next report will be from the front lines. I hope you will join me there.