Guest Post: Capitalism is Killing Our Kids

Guest Post by Whitney Bush. Whitney is a middle school science teacher in Brooklyn NY originally from Madison, WI. She studied Wildlife and Wildlands Conservation at BYU and Special Education at Brooklyn College.  She loves canoes, books, cheese, and naps.

Like most kids, my plans for my future changed yearly, if I was feeling particularly committed, more often if I had recently read a new book or met someone with a job I didn’t know existed. My parents never hesitated to support me from my dreams of being a large animal veterinarian in rural England to writing Environmental policy. As my interests and hobbies grew, my parents never wavered. Books, rock tumblers, alto recorders and crystal growing lab kits would show up as frequently as the family budget would allow. My parents believed I could and would do anything I set my mind to. And so I did.

Then in my mid twenties I had an epiphany that I never expected. “Hey Mom,” I said after recently moving home to Wisconsin after spending a year and a half in Italy “I think I want to be a teacher.” My mom still remembers this moment and how bittersweet it was for her. When visiting me at the middle school I teach at in Brooklyn a few months ago, she told me again how she had known I would be an amazing teacher but she also knew it was going to be a hard and often thankless calling.

When I came to her nine years ago she had been teaching in a public school for almost 20 years. And she had seen it all. We’ve always been close so I had heard all the stories. I had heard about the thousands of kids that she loved like her own and that she kept entertained while tricking them into becoming amazing thinkers and mathematicians. I loved going to work with her as a kid and seeing her in action. Watching her felt akin to watching a superhero, she could win over any kid because she was so real with them and cared about them so openly. Not just if they could pass algebra but cared about their humanity. The teaching and the kids, I now know first hand, that’s the fun part, that’s why we do what we do. But I had also heard her stories about conflict averse administration, about entitled parents and about the nonsensical edicts coming out of the downtown offices. Even as a kid I didn’t understand why people working in an office could make decisions about what was happening in a school. My mom knew exactly what I was signing on for, the good, which is so good, and the bad, which can be so so bad.

Whenever I call to tell her about the latest drama, a student that said something wild, a parent email that was out of touch, a conflict with a coworker, she always listens and sighs and says “You know I get it.” And you know, I had no idea how grateful I would be to hear that from her, every single time. Because the truth is, unless you have spent real time in a public school, you have absolutely no idea what it’s like. Even my dad, who is a highly empathetic human, can’t quite understand some of the fury I feel trying to work in a system that, while theoretically designed for students, doesn’t seem to care about them or us.

Because the truth is, society doesn’t actually care about education. I knew that on some level when I found myself comparing myself to childhood friends who were defending dissertations in microbiology and finishing medical school residencies, while I was *just* finishing a master in education and my first years of teaching. Society didn’t think that was much of an achievement and I found myself believing them. If it was a valuable job we would make a competitive salary, right? If people cared about education it wouldn’t be the first budget to be cut, right? In this capitalist society we have made it clear what we value.

There was a glorious two months period where it seemed like people finally understood how hard and important our job is. April and May of 2020, when suddenly every family in America was stuck at home and trying to figure out how to do long division or what theme is but really how do you actually get kids to do any work? We were National heroes for two glorious months because people realized they can’t do our jobs.

But then COVID didn’t go away as fast as we did and suddenly we were the bottom of the pecking order again. Because we were scared about returning to unsafe school: out of date school buildings with overcrowded classrooms in a world where there was still no vaccine. Hundreds of school districts wouldn’t even enforce mask mandates because the actual lives of teachers were not valued.

It shouldn’t have been such a surprise but it felt like another gut punch during an already trying time.

No one knows better than a teacher how important it is to have students in a classroom. As I sat in my empty classroom days before school was set to start remotely in September of 2020, I wept. When would I have a room full of messy kids again, launching rockets, reading blood pressures, identifying bird songs? I mourned the job that I loved but was grateful that my kids were going to be safe from the virus while we muddled through zoom together. Despite being months into the pandemic the amorphous office jobs that control our lives hadn’t made a plan. Every week a new decree came that made less and less sense and we watched as individual schools and districts would open and close and open and close all year long. We rolled with it, like we always did, because we wanted our kids to be healthy and safe as much as we wanted to teach them.

Because once again we find the people who aren’t in the classroom making all the decisions. This past December as omicron spiked in NYC and our new mayor refused to let schools go remote, I wore two masks and prayed I would make it till winter break. I was one of the lucky ones but as I landed in Wisconsin on the evening of the 23rd I got a text from my best friend at work, he had just tested positive. He had shown up for our kids every day, like we do, and now would be spending his holidays alone in quarantine. We came back to school on January 3rd and that month more than half of my students and coworkers would get sick. My assistant principal was teaching gym everyday because we were so short staffed, but you can’t go remote, the mayor said, that would be too disruptive to learning.

We had barely made it through the peak of omicron, students were being sent home with covid tests because of school exposures almost weekly, and then the mask mandate in our school was lifted. And then the most shocking thing happened- people kept getting sick. I mean, it wasn’t shocking to any of us, but I assume it shocked the mayor, unless the truth is, once again, that our health and lives are of no value to him.

And now it’s June. And we are tired. As magical as it has felt to have my students back, to see the moments the wheels click into place, to listen to them discuss current science issues, to hug them every day, it has been a long and hard year. 7th grade is often the worst year of any kid’s life, I know it was for me, but it’s even harder when you spent most of the last two years at home. The social learning is on fast forward and their mistakes have been messy and hard to help them sort through. We all took a collective breath when June first hit because it meant we would in fact, survive the year. And then Uvalde happened. We hugged our kids and held space for them to feel and talk about the open wound of America that is gun violence and the inability of people in power to value human life over money. As the asinine factions on the internet ignored the inability of the police to act in this disaster and instead discussed the merits of arming teachers, I closed my laptop. I’m too tired to be this angry all the time. Instead of watching the internet burn with contempt for the humanity of school children and teachers, I went to watch our spring school musical and sit in awe of my students and coworkers. For the first time since the pandemic hit we had a stage full of music and dancing and unabashed joy and connection. It felt a little like healing. And then that very same weekend, the school budgets for next year were released.

I don’t know how we manage to still be surprised. How does it still feel like a gut punch?

Because the truth is we don’t care about education. If we did, the mayor wouldn’t be cutting funding across the board to the extent that my school alone may have to excess 6 teachers while also cutting out almost all extracurricular activities. If we cared about the health of our communities at all we would invest in our children. We would give them every opportunity we could to be themselves fully and support them every step of the way. We wouldn’t be cutting the budgets that make that happen and we wouldn’t be increasing the police budget. Our capitalist society isn’t interested in such a long term investment. And while teachers are used to their humanity being ignored, we’re tired of watching our kids suffer because politicians continue to care more about money than humanity. I’m tired. I’m tired of politicians that can’t do my job making decisions that hurt my kids while they continue to lie about there just not being enough money. Sorry, you can’t have smaller class sizes, sorry you can’t have sports teams, sorry you can’t teach music classes, sorry you can’t go on field trips, sorry you can’t do small group reading interventions. We know your chromebooks are getting old, but the police need glocks. Or whatever latest lie the politicians have for us.

Capitalism is killing our kids.

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15 Responses

  1. Lurker says:

    I like your description of the struggles of teaching. I have family who faces the same challenges and I wish people appreciated education as more than a ‘free’ babysitting service, but if you ask me, that’s the problem, it’s ‘free’ (government funded) and therefore not a capitalist endeavor.

    When people pay the bill themselves and directly, they’ll appreciate the value of what they are buying a lot more. Imagine if parents were required to educate their children, but there was no ‘free’ public system, instead they had to select and pay for a school directly? (Ignoring, for a moment, the financing, let’s assume it works, how it could work would be a whole other discussion)

    Yes, we need to appreciate teachers and education more. Yes, we need to get parents back on the same team as teachers in educating and rearing children. No, capitalism is not the problem.

    • Jared says:

      Wouldn’t more capitalism in education just leave the wealthy families with good education that they value because they pay for it directly and poor families with even worse education? I think the idea of public education is that its value shouldn’t be measured the way for-profit companies’ are valued, no? Wouldn’t it be preferable if everyone got a good education regardless of how much money they or their parents had?

      • Lurker says:

        I don’t want to get into the particulars of financing, that’s a whole other long discussion, for the sake of this discussion assume it could be financed in a way that would allow parents of children to educate their kids and have maybe a couple of options on how to do that. I think the point of the article is to list some struggles of teaching. But in doing so the author lays the blame at the feet of capitalism when as far as I can tell it’s expressly the lack of capitalism in public education that’s leading to parents taking it for granted. I suspect teachers at schools where the parents/guardians of the students pay the tuition directly have a whole different slate of complaints.

        • Steve Young says:

          I think what you’re trying to describe is a “free market”, where people can make choices. We don’t have free markets, precisely because the mega wealthy distort every price because they can pay for things that they don’t need to think about. The idea of a free market of school is attractive, but impossible in our system for the above reason, and it is also morally bankrupt b/c of the many children who can’t pay for school. One of the few good things this country did was to make education available for just about everyone. The US educational system fails when schools are underfunded (though there is PLENTY of money for it), not because parents or teachers take it for granted.

          The problems referenced are directly the result of capitalism because the response to the pandemic was calculated by and for the capitalist class (people who own things and make money off of other people’s work) at the detriment of the working and middle classes (people who make and do things). They decided that we needed to send our kids back to school, despite the fact that it was dangerous, because they needed us to get back to work. Not because we needed to work (Americans work FAR more than most other developed countries, we’re WAY more productive than we were in the past, but the people doing the work are just getting poorer and poorer), but because the capitalist folks are creditors and we are debtors. They make their money off of us paying off debts, and if we don’t go back to work, they don’t make money.

          • Lurker says:

            An easy free market education system approach is something like a voucher system. Allocate an amount of money per student, then send that money to the school of the parent’s choice (or the parent for home schooling). Though I think if we just give the parents education money directly along with a legal requirement to educate their children, we’d see overall good results. People tend to respond well to things they are responsible for which is why free markets tend to beat controlled markets.

            Obviously there more room for discussion than a paragraph on how to finance, but hopefully that’s enough to move the discussion away from financing and into what would the benefit be once we figured out the best way to finance it.

            I don’t think the system we have where most people use public education they don’t directly pay for and the very wealthy educate privately has any resemblance to what a capitalist education system would be because the only people allowed to make free market decisions are the wealthy. Therefore, the problems in our system are NOT a result of capitalism and more a result of trying a socialist hybrid model within a capitalist system.

    • Em says:

      Making only parents pay for education perpetuates the falsehood that only parents and children are benefitting from having an educated populace. That just isn’t true. Even if you never have children, you benefit from people younger than you being educated. Some day those kids will be the doctor when you’re a senior citizen. They will be the politicians you elect. Lack of equal access to educational opportunity is a major factor in poverty and crime, which hurts all of society not just those directly affected. The problem is not that parents do not value education. I know few parents who think “no, I don’t want my kids to get art classes, or music, or PE, or a reasonable student/teacher ratio.” The number of fundraisers and hours spent volunteering show that parents are going far beyond their tax dollars to try to help fund our school system.

      Capitalism makes political wheels spin. The lobbies with the most money get the favorable laws and the big budget chunks. Any investment in education will bear fruit decades from now, and in ways that will not be easy to trace back to the investment. This person is not in prison, because they had x, y, p, and z as teachers in a small class size quickly intervening when they showed delays and needed more help. This person is not in prison because their high school had an internship program that gave them a foot in the door in a profession. This person is not in prison because after school programs gave them a safe productive place to be. But how would you ever trace that? Could you say “the investment in Shawn’s education in 1993 has saved the state thousands of dollars in court fees and prison costs, not to mention, the costs of his crimes”? No. It isn’t practical to do a cost-benefit analysis that shows how valuable education is. But because we look at the world through a capitalist lens, and make our decisions accordingly, we fail to invest where it would ultimately bring the greatest benefit to society.

  2. Cate says:

    I so appreciate your comments about how teachers are underappreciated, and schools are underfunded. I work at a university; a couple of weeks ago we hosted a group of area high school educators for a workshop. During a hands-on demonstration, one professor said that a piece of equipment was affordable at $200; a visiting math teacher responded, “My school won’t even buy me graph paper!” She’s planning on buying some herself – out of her teacher’s salary. The more you think about it, the more wrong it gets. We’re in the process of procuring some for her, but – basic school supplies should be a right!

  3. Katie Ludlow Rich says:

    This is powerful. Government financial priorities are a travesty. Public schools are so grossly underfunded across the board, and will all the health and safety risks of recent years to boot. It’s heartbreaking.

  4. Amen amen, Whitney. We can’t use the same metrics in the business world on the kids, and I’m so sick of using that approach. Also, Mormons/LDS/Church of Jesus Christ goers, we must get over our love of capitalism. There are other ways of being that reduce suffering and improve outcomes for all, not just some.

  5. Steve Young says:

    I appreciate this post, it is full of feeling and rich perspective. Thanks, Whitney!
    That said, you fell short of a perfect score on “Steve’s Scale of Comradeship” because you didn’t call for the immediate overthrow of the Christo-Fascist government of the U.S., and the increased taxation of the wealthy and the churches. I expect that that will be coming in your next post?

  6. Sean McKee says:

    Well put. My mother is a retired public school teacher. She told me of the woes of which you write. I think the situation in public schools is a symptom of our loss of community and civic awareness.

    As one of the more popular posters from the 1960s reads, “it will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the air force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber.”

    • Lurker says:

      This makes me wonder . . . How much does a school need? Spending per student in the US varies from something like $7k to $26k per student and performance does not track strictly with spending, meaning some schools spending on the low end have good results and some on the high end have poor results.

      There is more to achieving a good education than funding, but there is probably a minimal amount you need to prevent lack of funding from being a problem (not sure where that is $10km $12k per student). I think we need to pay teachers well. I think we need reasonably nice and well-maintained buildings. While there is no upper limit to spending, I suspect if a district can’t educate kids for somewhere in the $10k-$12.5k per student range, then there are probably problems outside of funding that need to change. Are administrators responsible and managing money well? Are there too many administrators? Are parents involved?

      • canoelov says:

        Thank goodness parents aren’t involved. They “know what’s best” for their kid but experience shows they have no idea what’s best for the demographic. If you don’t believe me, read any HOA website.

        Are there too many administrators? Ask any teacher.

        “Free market” capitalists love it because parents can choose what’s best (so they think) for their kids. The “I’m not racist but” parents are unwilling to send their kids to school where there are more “smart” kids (meaning not poor). The catholic schools have a huge population of non-catholics for that very reason.

        • Lurker says:

          This line of thinking concerns me. Look at Canada, they have either passed or are about to pass a law that the state knows what is best for kids, not parents. Think about the track record of government bureaucracy, do you really think we should turn over primary responsibility for deciding what’s best for kids to the State?

          • SJ Warrior says:

            I can see you’ve thought a lot about this and from what you’ve said, it looks like you come down on the side of capitalist libertarianism, another side of the neoliberal coin. IMO, capitalism is an unsustainable experiment that actively harms individuals and communities. Capitalism needs a base of poor, undereducated people to provide a cheap source of labor. It’s necessarily racist, classicist, ableist, misogynist. I agree that government involvement adds to the problems faced by the most vulnerable in the form of a surveillance economy that in turn feeds the prison industrial complex, military industrial complex, etc. However, given that this is the real world and we can’t just snap our fingers and make people behave in the best interests of the most vulnerable, I think we need to push governments to do a better job, not to get out of the business of providing resources for a strong population. As long as neoliberal capitalism continues to create oppression, we cannot shrug our shoulders and say government as it is should let people pull themselves up by the bootstraps.

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