Except for money, bad realities invaded schools in 2023


Soon after 9/11, I attempted to engage my writing students in a discussion, but one student was not having it. She thought the World Trade Center attacks irrelevant.

“That happened in New York,” she said, tiredly.

What a luxury to think that Michigan was disconnected from U.S. events. In 2001, I thought that the world was already pushing in on students, but it seems to have invaded schools in the year 2023.

The meeting of schools/colleges with society troubles is unavoidable, but unlike at a street intersection where a traffic light, or stop or yield signs control traffic to avoid crashes, no such directional signals exist for public education.

Instead of giving schools safe passage, trouble crashes into their space. In 2023, while financial support was finally on the upswing, violence, politics, and low-test scores disrupted education at will.

I am a R&B music fan, partial to the Philly sound, especially the group the O’Jays, whose song, “Money, Money, Money” describes the year’s biggest positive public education news. State legislators took public education off a starvation budget and replaced it with an optimism-rich record high increase in the 2023-2024 appropriation.

The budget contained raises for teachers, whose contribution to quality education relies on their willingness to materially contribute toward a better future. On average, the National Education Association says, a teacher uses upwards of $750 of her own money to buy classroom materials.

So, it’s no surprise that in early 2023, Michigan’s retired certified teachers showed little interest in bridging the teacher shortage by returning to classrooms, but in October came a sweetheart deal that allowed them to collect their pensions and get paid to teach. 

It was the right remedy. For decades, teachers bore blame for trouble in schools, when what they needed was more, not less, support to deal with the social instability students and families brought into schools. With little or no support, the world took over.

Now we have a record budget, though it remains unclear what the exact budget numbers are — media reports did not agree on a number, and Department of Education press releases blurred line-item allocations. However, whatever the amount is, thank you, again, Gov. Whitmer and the Legislature. 

After being created in June, the Governor’s Parents Advisory Council had little time to complete an ambitious agenda, but its completed work supported the record public ed budget, including remedies for learning lost to the COVID pandemic, and mental health support in response to the Michigan State University and Oxford High School shootings. 

Definitely, in February Michigan State University students suffered when an active shooter, who apparently had nothing to do with MSU, entered two buildings, killed three students, injured five others and terrorized the whole campus.

A Black woman student was among the dead.

Violence has long plagued Black urban high school students, sending their parents searching for safe educational settings. Do they exist anywhere anymore? The responsiveness to school mass shootings has a lot of Black people wishing that attacks on Black students had been met with more than spending educational dollars on metal detectors.

A friend of mine was the court-appointed attorney for a Black female high school student who, in 2018, stabbed her classmate to death in a Fitzgerald High School classroom in Warren.

In November, I saw my friend at a Detroit art show. On the violence issue, he said, “These kids grow up in families where people don’t teach kids how to let things roll off their backs, or how to walk away. They react, react, react.”

His client was sentenced to 27 years in prison. When released, she will be 45, and  overflowing with regrets, as was the Oxford (Oakland County, Michigan) High School shooter at his sentencing. He was 15 years old when he killed four classmates in December 2021, a crime his parents are accused of being complicit in when they bought him a gun. In early December, the son was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Blame political misinterpretation of the Second Amendment for that.

Politics in the form of book banning further disrupted public education. Scholastic Publishing CEO Peter Warwick said that “growing polarization in U.S. Society and politicized schools and school boards” factored into its October decision to segregate diverse books at their school book fairs. Regular people called it, “censorship!”

Scholastic backed down.

Though an undeniable part of education, computers flunked an important exam. In August, the state Department of Education rightly displayed tepid enthusiasm for state test scores showing considerable loss of learning during the pandemic, partly because some parents failed to send their students to school on computers in their own homes.

In a rare public move last fall, frustrated Lansing educators came in front of the Lansing People’s Assembly to protest school decisions which rely only on standardized test scores. That undermines student success, they said.

Dale Herder, Lansing Community College vice president emeritus, said the same idea like this: Students don’t care what teachers know until they know that teachers care.

We are headed in the wrong direction. Plunking a student down in front of a computer is not caring. It’s asking students to be less human. In contrast, the popular “Star Trek” character named Data, an android, for years has wrestled with his desire to be human.

Social problems will always spill-over. I just wish they would stay out of our schools.

(Dedria Humphries Barker of Lansing is the the author of “Mother of Orphans: The True and Curious Story of Irish Alice, A Colored Man’s Widow.” Her opinion column appears on the last Wednesday of each month.



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