Public schools pick up the slack for many of society’s ills. They deserve our support.

An empty pre-school classroom with wooden desks.
(Photo credit: Getty Images)

When my oldest son was three years old, I enrolled him in our neighborhood school. I was a doctoral student at the time and my husband and I could not afford to pay for preschool. Fortunately, St. Louis Public Schools (SLPS) had just rolled out universal, full-day preschool for three- and four-year olds.

During this first year of school, my son was referred for a special education assessment. The results of this assessment not only indicated the need for additional testing for developmental delays, but also reported that my son qualified for gifted education. This early intervention has been life changing for my family.

My son has now moved on to middle school, and we decided that a local charter school would be the best fit for him due to his specific learning and developmental needs. This charter school has the specific types of innovations to support my son as he prepares for high school, at which point we may choose a SLPS high school.

This pandemic year has indeed been particularly trying for everyone, but children in particular have struggled substantially. My children have been stabilized by their school community in SLPS that they have built over the past eight years, which includes school counselors, teachers, friends and fellow parents.

Our family, like many others, received assistance from SLPS and their community partnerships throughout this pandemic. We received meals from SLPS food services over the summer and coats from the Little Bit Foundation in the winter.

Free full-day summer school this June will provide both child care and remedial instruction.

I opened with the narrative about my family in response to the op-ed by Douglas Thaman from May 24.

Thaman’s description of the struggles families have encountered during the pandemic is compelling. While it is true that we have long-standing inequalities in our school systems, it is not our schools that have failed our students, it is our society. Our society has failed to support women and children, and schools have picked up the pieces and filled the gaps that our governments have refused to acknowledge.

Nationally, 1 in 6 children live in poverty and suffer food insecurity. Families living below the poverty line in the U.S. can expect to pay at least 30% of their income to pay for child care.  Access to regular, affordable health care is a battle for many families. Children living in certain zip codes don’t have access to parks or safe places where they can ride their bikes.

For all of these larger societal issues, schools have picked up the slack and footed the bill.

However, not all schools need the same amount of money to operate. Districts serving an affluent community are able to allocate fewer resources to wrap around services. The flexibility afforded to charter schools allows them to operate on streamlined budgets, sometimes offering no transportation to school as a way to cut overhead costs.

SLPS, like all traditional public school districts, must maintain a minimum operating budget in order to function. Our district maintains over 60 buildings; provides services like special education, transportation, and food; offers specialized programs like those for English language learners (including an ESL newcomer school), summer school, before- and after-school care and a full range of staff including nurses, social workers, and counselors.

SLPS also provides services to the larger community.

The district’s Adult Education and Literacy program provides support for adults seeking their high school equivalency degree and improvement in workforce skills. SLPS provides special education services and disperses federal Title I and Title II dollars for many parochial schools in the City.

While it is not legal for charter schools to refuse admission to a student based on behavior, special needs, or English language proficiency, scholars and community members point out instances of students being “counseled out” of charter schools. In fact nationally, studies indicate that some charter schools enroll a lower percentage of students with disabilities than the surrounding school district.

We do not need to debate whether charter schools should exist. In fact, for a family like my own, this argument doesn’t even make sense, since we have students in both SLPS and a charter school.

Charter schools offer innovative educational options. In fact, the original objective for charter schools was to create innovations to carry over into the local school district. A language immersion school or a community-sponsored school serves specific interests and needs within a larger educational ecosystem.

However, some charter schools do not adequately serve their communities and eventually close, leaving students with nothing to show for their time there. While innovation is important, it cannot be at the expense of oversight and accountability.

Thaman is correct — communities need functioning schools in order to thrive. School closures are not only driven by community decline, but can actually cause that decline, particularly in urban areas. The bottom line is that we need a functional school district in order to support a thriving educational ecosystem.

If we really believe that education is a way to achieve equality for all children, then we should fund education as such. We should not fight over $1,000 per student when Missouri lags far behind other states in spending per pupil.

Collectively, we must demand reasonable funding for all public schools while acknowledging the different expenses of each school or district. We have to change the narrative around public education, improve the entire system, and strengthen local control of our schools.

After all, we don’t need to “come visit.” We already live here.

Correction: This story has been updated since it originally published to reflect that it is illegal for a charter school in Missouri to refuse to admit a student based on behavior, special needs, or English proficiency.