OPINION | SHELLEY SMITH: For the students

Public education must survive

I loved being a teacher. After I discovered that it was my calling in life, much to my surprise, I embraced it with my whole heart for 32 years.

Public education is not perfect. Far from it. Recent trends have marginalized the vital components while the minutiae are amplified. However, I have always believed it is the best way to reach the maximum number of families with the best possible blend of the Three Rs and other subjects. Every class is important. Every class reaches kids who need a place to shine.

I began my teaching career in North Carolina during the Arts Are Basic movement of the 1980s that recognized how the visual and performing arts were essential to the development of young brains. At one campus I had a classroom full of alleged misfits and problem teenagers who hated school, and were “this close” to dropping out.

I’ll never forget one young man named Jeremy who had learned to use the potter’s wheel and was quite good at it. The principal stopped by to check on his naïve young art teacher with the wild kids, just as Jeremy exclaimed with a huge grin across his whole face, “Now this is education! I’ll come to school for this.” Mr. Principal was flabbergasted. He had expected to find me tied to a chair and the students nowhere to be found. What I knew was that creating art, specifically with clay, can transform a person’s entire attitude from one of belligerence and apathy to an almost childlike and gleeful enthusiasm. This is the spark that inspires learning. This is why we teach. The privilege of being an art teacher was crystal clear to me that day, and on many days since.

Jeremy’s parents were divorced. His father was absent. His mother worked at a furniture factory in town. She didn’t attend parent teacher conferences because she worked second shift. I never saw her. He assured me that she really did care about him, but had to work to pay the rent and keep the lights on. He basically raised himself and his younger sister.

Public schools were the lifeline for that family. If there had been such a thing as private school vouchers back then, it wouldn’t have made any difference for Jeremy. His hardworking momma would not have been able to drive him to the next county every morning and pick him up every afternoon. She would not have been able to pay for tuition and supplies that the vouchers didn’t adequately cover, or uniforms, or his lunch bill.

She and the other parents trusted the public school system to give their kids the best shot at a diploma, and a wide range of experiences to help them find their way in the world. Only the wealthier families could have afforded to send their kids to private schools, with or without vouchers.

Why is this relevant in 2023? In Arkansas and nationwide, there is a movement to divert taxpayer money away from public schools into private institutions. We can talk about school funding until we all turn blue and faint from boredom, but I promise you that what really matters in the end are all those kids like Jeremy, whose families live from paycheck to paycheck, struggling to keep food on the table. They depend on their local public school to educate and inspire their children. Many families in Arkansas live this way.

Too many lawmakers don’t seem to understand the effects of their actions. All they know is that the new governor really wants “school choice” to happen. Apparently, they have no real-world concept of what they are doing as they obediently fall in line like cows waiting to be branded.

The most heartbreaking words you will ever hear from a child are, “Well if you don’t care, then I don’t care either. I quit.” If we allow Gov. Sarah Sanders to sail through the legislative session on her private-voucher yacht filled with out-of-state influencers, every kid in Arkansas will be cheated out of the best we have to offer. Vital programs will be cut as budgets shrink. We will lose kids like Jeremy.

The sales pitch that implies that he can go to any school is misleading. It sounds good, but it is a scam, financed by taxpayers whose children will never see the benefits, and whose small rural schools may disappear as a result of said scams. If we don’t understand how this affects Jeremy and his mom, then we have missed the entire point.

I believe in and support public schools.

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Shelley Smith is a retired teacher from the Mountain View District in Stone County, and lives in Fox.

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