My first experience with affirmative action was as a naive 18-year-old first stepping foot into my college dorm building. After a lifetime of high marks in school, scoring in the top percentile on standardized tests, extracurricular activities, and volunteer work, the university had offered me a scholarship to cover the cost of tuition, $5,274 per semester. I soon learned that many students in my dorm had lower grades and less involvement, yet the school was covering not only their tuition, but also books, lodging, food, and enough cash in the “living expenses” fund for three sets of twin extra-long comforters and daily sushi take-out. Though their parents were successful doctors, lawyers, and business owners, my hall-mates were awarded significantly more money to attend college because they were Hispanic, Black, and one-eighth Native American. Being born white cost me tens of thousands of dollars.
It didn’t feel fair and, if I am being perfectly honest, it still bothers me a bit to this day. I witnessed firsthand the doling out of opportunity based on skin color, rather than academic merit, financial means, or the effort of private scholarship applications. My entire life had revolved around academic rigor and I was now surrounded by a pothead who never went to class, a ditzy shopaholic who could have run three clothing boutiques out of her dorm room, and a young lady that was always devising ways to spend off the credits issued by her sponsoring foundation. They were all lovely people, but no one else was budgeting $1 per day for food or simply “window shopping” on trips the the mall. I was hyper-focused on doing well in school and spending my limited funds wisely while many around me were on cruise control, simply because they were able to click “non-white” on their college application.
The underlying feeling is not that of bitterness or anger, but more that of confusion. Why isn’t scholarship based on just that? We all come from different background and are given different opportunities. I understand the motivation behind giving traditionally disadvantaged populations opportunity. Yet, I believe the plan and the execution are far off-course.
A child that attended a failing school in a bad part of town won’t necessarily achieve academic success when dropped off at a college campus with no debt burden. If a child has never learned how to learn, college may not be the clear-cut path out of poverty that our leaders had hoped for.
“I am doing good to the poor, but… I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it. I observed… that the more public provisions were made for the poor, the less they provided for themselves, and of course became poorer. And on the contrary, the less that was done for them, the more they did for themselves, and became richer.”Benjamin Franklin
If we want to reform the education system, we need to start much earlier than college. We need prepare children from all backgrounds to compete on their college applications based on scholarship and merit. We need to teach children how to learn, foster a sense of curiosity, and support the development of character. There are no kids in my life, and yet I still feel strongly that I have skin in the game. Young people are our future. They are going to be leaders and they are going to be leeches on the system, depending on where they discover the greatest benefit.
I have been following Corey DeAngelis for several years. His mission is to fund young students, not school systems. When school choice is enacted, the family is not limited to the school in their neighborhood. Rather, state funding follows the child to attend the school of the family’s choice. The best schools will become the most well-funded, and the sup-par schools will be forced to improve or shut down. DeAngelis’ research focuses on the effects of school choice programs on non‐academic outcomes such as criminal activity, character skills, mental health, and political participation. Empowering parents to make decisions about their children’s schools can be a powerful tool for education reform.
I don’t claim to be an expert on children, education, or politics. I’m simply concerned about the future of our country. A colleague’s social daughter (age 9) developed depression due to “Zoom school” and her high-energy son (age 6) can’t read social cues because masks have been required during his formative years. This is in one of the top-rated school districts in state, and within the top 8% in the country. This same district is receiving push back from parents for providing graphic pornography in elementary school libraries to allow young children to explore their sexuality. Parents are not happy, and I believe the pandemic is the last straw, rather than a new problem.
Similar to university-level education, state governments are throwing money at bloated, bureaucratic systems. I believe the motives may be self-serving. Some members of the teacher’s unions want to push their social and political agendas, and to do so in the classroom. Author James Lindsey once posed the question: What happened to all the hippie activists of the 60s and 70s? The answer was surprising, and yet not. They became teachers. If you can’t influence the current leaders, you can try to shape the future decision-makers. I have concerns.
Last year, the Arlington School Board began requiring “more equitable grading practices,” including unlimited redos and retakes on assignments. Who does this benefit? In 2019, before remote learning, only 35% of American students could read at grade level. My best friend is a Chinese immigrant and her husband is an Indian immigrant, and they both came from cultures of academic rigor and extreme discipline. Even in their poor, rural communities, constant learning and high moral character were non-negotiable. I don’t see that model in the American school system, and I worry that within the coming decades, our country with be physically and mentally weak in comparison to the the rest of the world. We’re supposedly making every child feel special and included, but at what cost?
Serial entrepreneur Balaji Srinivasan has described a new model of viewing the world. Rather than the stagnant titles of rich and poor people or advanced versus third-world countries, we should view the world through the lens of movement and trajectory. A person may either be building wealth or squandering it. A country may be ascending to a new level or failing to continue advancement. Srinivasan believes that Asia and India are ascending while the Americas are declining and, unfortunately, I have to agree.
Thinking back to my teen-aged self, I thought was was just being angsty. Fifteen years later, I still think about my first semester of college regularly. I’ve suffered other injustices and missed out on golden opportunities, so what set this apart? I now believe that, on some deeper level, I recognized that the “free money to minorities” model was broken. It’s not they did not deserve the opportunity for an education; on the contrary, they deserved the opportunity for a stellar education much earlier in life.
If the government is paying schools $35,000 per student per year, why aren’t we producing brilliant, motivated, ethical kids who are excited to change the world in the way that only they can?
The system, as-is, is broken. Kids are developing mental illness while failing to develop basic math, literacy, and life skills. Something needs to change, and I think it needs to start with school choice. Everyone deserves equal opportunity for achievement. That achievement will look different for each kid–college should not necessarily be the default option. They may grow up to be a doctor, athlete, stay-at-home, mechanic, or sales person. The occupation isn’t what matters. What matters is that we are proving young children the opportunities to discover their interests, explore their strengths, develop their character, and become contributing members of society. It seems so simple and straightforward, yet I have grave concerns for the future of the country if don’t change course soon.
What can we do? If you, too, whether a parent or not, are concerned with the state of the education system in your local school district, you can vote for politicians and policies that support your views; follow the news; join a parent-organized group like the PTA; learn about your children’ school; ask your kids about what they are being taught; and remember that you have the right to ensure that your child receives the education that you desire.