As a kid I fondly remember the night of Halloween was always a special night. Getting dressed up, walking around my neighborhood, getting to see friends and family, and that special feeling you got from seeing so many people in your community – some you know very well, but many others not as much – taking the time, effort, and money to give to the children of the community. Now as a parent of two young kids that same fondness has returned, and in fact, it is even better as I get to watch my own children have that same opportunity and joy. Furthermore now I can appreciate, even more, the gesture of my fellow community members giving to my children, like other generations had given to me. The history, the tradition, the giving nature of the night, one generation taking care of another, supporting our youth, etc. – Halloween is a unique and ‘sweet’ event in our culture.
More importantly, however, I believe that Halloween has a lesson that all of us must remember – generational responsibilities. If you think about it, Halloween only continues as a tradition because a previous generation understands that they previously received from others and now it is their obligation to pay that forward to the next generation. Can you imagine if my parents’ generation decided, “I’m not going Trick or Treating any more and I don’t have any kids doing it anymore, I’m not going to support and participate in Halloween any more.” Neighborhoods all across our country would have houses ‘with their lights off’, kids would get less of an experience, and eventually the positive impact and memories of Halloween would end. How sad would that be for our children? A positive, memory-forming, cultural experience ended.
To the children of America, who are freaking out that they may never get to Trick or Treat again…don’t worry this will probably never happen. I mean Americans value Halloween, right? According to the article The Halloween Economy published by The Atlantic in October 2011, we annually spend $6.86 billion on Halloween. More specifically $2 billion on candy and $300 million on pet costumes. (Really $300 million on pet costumes, I mean come on?!?!?)
However, there is something very scary and very sad about this story and something we should all realize. This exact scenario is happening to a more important generational, positive, cultural building experience supported by generational responsibilities – America’s public schools. What happens if you change the subject of the above ‘scary’ scenario from Halloween and Trick or Treating to American public schools and funding them?
What conversations do you hear now about funding our schools? Or more specifically, what do you hear the older generations say when it comes to their responsibility of ‘paying it forward’ to the next generation of students? To give back to the same system that provided them so much? What I hear is, public schools can do with less; that we spend too much on education; that teachers are overpaid; it won’t be a big deal if some programs and offerings have to be cut; class size doesn’t matter, what’s the big deal?, I don’t have any kids in schools any more therefore I shouldn’t have to for them, etc. This rationalization goes on and on, however ultimately still does not satisfy the fact that our ‘previous generations’ are largely shirking on their generational responsibilities. To illustrate, see the graph to the right, which shows the annual trend of public funding for the school district my children attend in Wisconsin. Previous generations in the state of Wisconsin are making the decision that students today can do and should do with less than they had when they went to school.
This direction for our state and our country is irresponsible and frankly dangerous for our nation and it’s future. It is wrong – Why?
1. High Student & Family Needs – According to economic projections and multiple research studies, it is now predicted that this Generation Y (current parents of school aged students) will be less well off than their parents – the first time in American history this has happened. More urgently, this is not a problem only for the future, American families of school aged children are already struggling. As the article title indicates, also for the first time in American history the majority of public school students are eligible to receive ‘free/reduced meal services.’ A student qualifies for reduced meal services if they come from a family of four with a total household income at or below $39,220 per year and for free meal services if total household income at or below $27,560 per year (according to the National School Lunch Program – NSLP). This increased low income/poverty rates also means greater services and support schools must provide these students and families while at school, for example medical care, social services, school supplies, etc. All of which puts increased financial strain on our public schools.
2. Our Priorities are Off – As we have progressed as a nation, our focus and priorities have become skewed. Consider this question – (while all people are important and have value) Who should our nation invest more in – a child (yours, your grandchild, your nephew/niece, your cousin, your neighbor, etc.) or a prisoner (someone who has violated our laws and collective values)? The answer to this question is obvious – a child. Would it surprise you to know that as a nation we spend nearly 5 times more annually on a prisoner than on a student? More specifically, there is not a single state in our nation that annually spends more on educating our children than on a prisoner behind bars. According to the included graph, each orange dot indicates the average annual spending per state on a student. Each blue dot indicates average annual spending per state on a prisoner. This is not a question of money and spending, but rather priorities. Are we going to continue to shortchange our students and our future? Are we going to continue to be reactionary, short-term thinkers? Instead of responding to poor investment in our people, by having to build more cells and prisons, why couldn’t we be more proactive and forward-thinking and invest in our children and our schools?
3. Global Competition – During the Cold War our nation overwhelmingly supported increasing spending in education, specifically in math and science, as we needed to keep up with and outpace our Communist enemy, the United Soviet Socialist Republic (U.S.S.R.). This was seen as a national security interest – we had to win. However, just because the Cold War has ended, the global ‘war’ or competition hasn’t ended. In fact, in many respects, the significance of our new competition and the scope of our competitors has actually gotten more significant. As the video “Shift Happens” shows us, places like China and India (due to their relative massive size) have more honors students than we have students. And because of the ‘flattening’ of our world through a variety of technology-based platforms and these nations’ own English language development programs, our nation’s students are now in direct competition with students from all over the world.
4. Complex Future – Due to unprecedented technological advancement, our students’ future is more uncertain than probably any point in history. As the Department of Labor Statistics has predicted today’s students will have 10-14 different jobs by the age of 38. Adding to this complexity is the fact that most of the jobs that these students will have do not even exist yet. So we are preparing students for multiple jobs/careers, most of which don’t exist right now, to solve issues that we can’t fully conceive yet. All of this requires an education system that is dynamic, responsive, robust, sophisticated, and fully funded. Our nation’s school systems have to be challenged, modernized, and should be held responsible for creating a learning environment that will develop learners that not only will survive in an uncertain future, but thrive and continue to be the leader for the rest of the world. We can’t do things like we always done, but we also cannot do this on a shoestring budget.
5. American Exceptionalism Does Not Just Happen – From the inception of our nation we have believed and have shown the world that there is something special about our nation and its people – what has been coined as “American Exceptionalism“. Whether because of the beliefs our nation was founded upon, the expansion of our nation and its influence, or our successes and influence – economically, culturally, militaristically, politically and socially, we all have lived in an era of American Exceptionalism. Whether you believe in this concept or not, there is little doubt that our nation has been a global leader for an amazingly long period of time. However, this ‘exceptionalism’ did not happen by accident or by default. Our nation’s sustained successes have come because all previous generations have understood that for our nation to get better or stay great, it must invest in itself and it’s future. In the early days of our nation, we understood that by developing a system of canals and ports we could expand economically. We understood that by developing an intercontinental rail system we could expand westward. We understood that during our nation’s darkest economic times, while facing military threats abroad, that investing in ourselves through the New Deal and other programs we could turn our economy around and defeat fascism throughout the world. We understood that developing a nationwide highway system not only could we grow and expand as a people, but we could develop a whole new economy and way of living and means to experience our nation. We understood that to defeat communism we needed to invest in our military, in research and development, in our colleges and universities. Our place in history and our position in the world today, did not come by accident. ‘Exceptionalism‘ has happened because of generations of Americans dedicating themselves to hard work, ingenuity, entrepreneurship, and investment in themselves and our future.
So as Halloween approaches and you finalize your own preparations for this memorable night, whether that’s decorating your house, finalizing your costume or buying candy to give to your neighbor’s children, please remember how and why this tradition continues. Then the next morning as your own children, children in your extended family, or children in your community go to school, please remember how and why this tradition continues. While your own ‘school days’ may be over, you still have a major role to play in our nation’s schools. Our children deserve to get a ‘treat’ from you, not being left holding empty candy bags.