Published Online: February 26, 2008

Please Sir, May I Have some More?

During the past holiday season there was surely one replay of the nostalgic Charles Dickens’ classic “A Christmas Carol” on a television set near you. In that tale, the fate of one crippled boy and his family rests on the generosity of the miserly Scrooge.

Though the conclusion focuses on the redemption of the greedy, lonely Scrooge, my thoughts have been on Tim and his family.

In the England of the 1830s and 40s, Dickens, who had suffered poverty when his father was sent to debtor’s prison, wrote stories that leapt the huge divide between the rich and poor of the 19th century. His poor protagonists always benefited, through a stroke of luck, from a kindhearted, wealthy benefactor.

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Though one child was saved from oblivion, we can assume that the others, like the Artful Dodger and his gang in Oliver Twist, were left to the hard streets where they had to fight their way to survival. The violent London of the time reflected this mean struggle.

The solution suggested for many of those Victorian ills was to turn to the private sector and beg for the scraps from an ample table. The parallels between that era and this are chillingly similar as the gap widens between the rich and poor in our increasingly divided nation.

There are two factors in public schooling today which are reminiscent of Dickens’ world and an indication that we will leave even more children behind: a reliance on charity to fill in the gaps, and a political push toward a free-enterprise system represented by school choice and voucher advocates. Both are rooted in a philosophy that the poor are somehow deserving of their fate and that the good and just will be rewarded.

The Problem With Charity

In the America of the 19th century, Andrew Carnegie was a generous benefactor and many of his gifts still resonate today. I see Bill Gates in a similar role now, spreading his largesse on projects that reflect his vision. Most of us celebrate Carnegie's dedication to establishing free lending libraries and Gates' desire to make high schools more meaningful for students.

But leaving aside the question of whether the business practices Carnegie and Gates used to gain their wealth were always best for country, it's worth considering whether it's in the public's interest to have to rely so heavily on the the largesse of benevolent private donors.

Though schools and teachers line up to be the recipients of a variety of charitable programs, the good that is done is unevenly distributed. And then there is the contingent effect on public policy. Why shape policy to reflect justice if someone is willing to stand in to fill some of the gap with a plug of money?

Should we allow one person or group to wield so much power over who we serve and how? I believe our policy should reflect American ideals and the underlying promise of public education: to provide opportunity for all no matter where you begin in life. As Ralph Nader astutely comments, “A society that has more justice is a society that needs less charity.”

Haves and Have-Nots

The No Child Left Behind Act was introduced and marketed as an equalizer of the advantaged and the disadvantaged. But rather than narrow the divide between the rich and poor in our country, the promise of NCLB is to further weaken the ties that bind us together, as we sort the wealthy and dependent into smaller and smaller subgroups based on ethnic and socio-economic factors. Through “choice” systems, failing schools are further punished with a withdrawal of public monies, rather than supported through social decision-making.

What features of this landscape are mirrored in the classroom? Without public charity (or justice) the less advantaged start out well behind in literacy. Two of my students need help acquiring texts for outside reading so they can mark the books as they have been encouraged to do. Though access to the Internet is available in public places, I’ve had students explain how impractical that can be when you have a part-time job or are living in a group home. Low-income students struggling with chronic illness and limited health care relate stories of choosing between maintenance drugs, telephone access, or affordable living arrangements.

And in this world of the haves and have-nots, there are some leaders who feel that the answer to failing schools is to provide vouchers so concerned parents can purchase the education their children “deserve.” Last month Bush made one last push for vouchers in his thinly disguised “Pell Grants for Kids” program, turning once again to a free-enterprise system that serves to further divide one human from another.

With vouchers — or Pell grants — the reality is that the very poor will be left, once again, with few options, while the more well-off will add the voucher to their substantial means and purchase the very best. The divide will be widened and public education will be further weakened.

For most citizens, the public school setting is the last place in their lives where rich and poor, white and black, native and nonnative will sit side by side to learn from each other. It is a jewel in a democratic society where children daily look into the eyes and lives of their diverse neighbors. We cannot afford to lose this opportunity to breach the gap and know each other as human beings.

As we slog through the depths of winter, we need to remember that we cannot afford to leave any child behind in the opportunities to learn, while we wait for a big-hearted benefactor to help them with their medical challenges, or reward them for a desire to succeed, or provide a hand up and out of grinding poverty. In the public policies of our nation rest the best hope for maximizing the human potential of all our citizens, and creating more equal, accepting opportunities to learn.

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