Our church, Highlands Presbyterian, has joined others soliciting donations of school supplies for the children of low income families. As the reams of paper, packages of pencils, crayons and backpacks gathered on our altar, it occurred to me this effort is like collecting Christmas food baskets in December. While helpful, it’s a temporary fix that ignores larger issues. If some are left to solicit charities for school supplies, what other basic needs of school children are not being met.
A study published at educationjustice.org disclosed one-third of Wyoming’s K-12 students live below the poverty level. Many families living above have an equally difficult time affording the considerable costs of providing student supplies. Costs of supplies, coupled with the need to clothe children, add up quickly to an unaffordable amount in many households. The inevitable result is donations don’t meet the need. Children are left behind.
Wyoming ranks first in the nation in funding public education. So why are churches gathering supplies and students knocking on doors seeking contributions for school activities? It wasn’t supposed to be that way.
Drafters of the Wyoming Constitution intended education to be free. Article 7, Section 1, “The legislature shall provide for the establishment and maintenance of a complete and uniform system of public instruction, embracing free elementary schools of every needed kind and grade…”
Article 7, Section 4 discusses use of county school and other funds, “the income of which shall be appropriated exclusively to the use and support of free public schools in the several counties of the state.” They couldn’t have been more clear than this, “The legislature shall make such further provision by taxation or otherwise, as with the income arising from the general school fund will create and maintain a thorough and efficient system of public schools, adequate to the proper instruction of all youth of the state, between the ages of six and twenty-one years, free of charge…” (Article 7, Section 9).
Wyoming’s Constitution was written by those who believed public education should be, as Horace Mann advocated, “one and the same, for both rich and poor.” But it is not.
In the early years of Governor Freudenthal’s administration, the Wyoming Business Alliance partnered with the Departments of Family Service and Education to address the failure of Wyoming schools to meet the needs of children. We identified a Mississippi program of coordinated school health which had rescued a rural school district from high juvenile arrests and teen pregnancies, substantial drop out rates and academic failure. They sought to first assure each child’s basic needs were met. Children innately desire to succeed. Barriers, ranging from health problems to hunger, present impediments. Their schools and communities made it a priority to eliminate impediments. If children were hungry, they were fed. If they needed glasses, medical care, shoes, or school supplies, they were provided.
Within a few years the juvenile arrest rate plummeted, teen pregnancies fell to zero, graduation rates topped 90% and children achieved measurably greater academic success. The program worked in Mississippi and should have worked here but for the failure of local control advocates to advocate equally loud for their students.
It wasn’t for a lack of effort from state leaders. The Business Alliance brought Dr. Pat Cooper, the superintendent of that school district to Wyoming to tell the story to hundreds of people. DFS and WDE funded a documentary, sending it to hundreds of school board members, legislators and other community leaders explaining how coordinated school health could improve education in Wyoming. WDE funded start-up grants. DFS funded fact finding trips to Mississippi so state leaders could see it firsthand.
As with far too many good ideas, when the champions are gone, so are the ideas. Inertia replaced the initial excitement and we are where we are.
There’s nothing wrong with churches and charities collecting school supplies, food and clothing for needy children unless those efforts are unaccompanied by a demand to know why a school system spending 1.2 billion dollars a year cannot meet the basic needs of its students and the promises of the Constitution for a free education.