Education doesn’t cost – it pays

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

I have taught at most community and technical colleges in the greater Tacoma area for many years – Pierce and TCC, Bates and Clover Park Technical Colleges and a few more.

My students have come from a mix of backgrounds – some are high school drop outs, some are military veterans. The vast majority are the first in their families to attend – and presumably complete – college of any kind.

Since I teach English, writing and public speaking, I see or hear their stories.

Most of them have a history of difficulty – if not public humiliation – thanks to their prior educational experience.

As they stumble through the unfamiliar and many times intimidating processes of admission, financial aid, registration, application essays and transcripts, I have to admire their courage and determination.

Their stories are humbling, baffling, contradictory and astounding. And they are the stories of young (and not so young) people who work and live alongside us and our friends and family members. These are not anonymous, invisible demographic groups. These are not abstractions, they are individuals who work and drive and vote and fill our schools and pay taxes and join us in our public parks and thoroughfares.

We can change their lives – for better or worse – without even knowing it.

Photo by Morf Morford

Photo by Morf Morford

One day a young black woman asked to speak to me after class. I didn’t know her. We were just a few weeks into a pre-college English class.

We had been discussing the in-class writing assignment: “Write about a family legend.” Before that, we had been talking about root words in the English language. I hadn’t made the connection before; we were talking about the roots of words and the roots of family – if not identity.

“I really like what we were talking about. I feel myself opening up,” she said.

I thanked and encouraged her, but I was taken aback.

Yes, of course this is what education should do and sometimes does, but I’m a bit shocked that something so mundane could be so stirring and, it seems, memorable. That is, after all, why I’m a teacher.

But I’m still a bit stunned when I see it.

For years Washington’s public schools have had a graduation rate of about 70 percent – far lower for black, Hispanic, low-income and Native American students. These groups have a dropout rate closer to 40 to 45 percent.

Tacoma Public Schools, in 2011, had a graduation rate of barely more than 60 percent. In 2007 a national researcher labeled all Tacoma’s comprehensive high schools as “dropout factories” in a national news story. In 2010, Tacoma high schools graduated 55 percent of students.

Tacoma schools have dramatically improved their graduation rate the past few years (https://www.tacomaschools.org/news/Pages/2017-grad-rate.aspx)

These numbers show the rate – and increase by race since 2013:

Black                          up 17.7%        85.1% 2017

Hispanic                    up 22.9%       80.1% 2017

Native American     up 12.3%       70.4% 2017

Pacific Islander          up 39.9%       93.5% 2017

Multi-ethnic              up 42.7%       77.2% 2017

White                         up 12.4%       88.2% 2017

Asian                          up 18.5%       93.2% 2017

The ten, twenty or even thirty(!) percent of students who don’t graduate get a clear and consistent message; school is not for them.

They eventually get the message that marriage, home ownership, rewarding careers, political engagement (voting and running for office) and being a stable parent or responsible citizen are also not for them.

Think about the sheer math of it; 10-30 percent of our young people, year after year, don’t graduate from high school. This quickly adds up to many thousands of young adults.

Where do they go? What do they do?

They don’t go far, and we know what they do. Research shows that drop outs roam our streets, fill our jails, pack our welfare system, have children they can’t take care of, and, most of all, waste their most productive years and don’t contribute their passion and resourcefulness to our community. You can see an article and documentary on these students here - https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/by-the-numbers-dropping-out-of-high-school/.

I see many of them as students years after they dropped out – they are struggling, sometimes in exhaustion and desperation, to reclaim their lives. Most never expected to complete secondary school, let alone post-high school or vocational training. They are veterans, single parents or displaced workers and they are survivors.

We have many solid and successful students, but many have siblings, parents, perhaps even grandparents who have established the pattern of dropping out, committing petty crime, and abusing drugs and alcohol. They experience unexpected pregnancy, official intervention, incarceration, minimum wage jobs and the constant threat of homelessness.

For most of us, this is a distant world. But it is a parallel world alongside ours. And their world intersects with ours in ways we barely recognize.

Few of these kids will read a newspaper, buy a home, run for office or start a business. At least that’s what most of them – and many of us – believe.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Couldn’t we imagine a school district, a neighborhood, a community, stepping up to guide and protect these kids?

How is a 10 or 30 percent dropout rate tolerable? It’s only tolerable because they are not our kids.

Except that they are.

I have an occasional hand in the local political and arts scene. When I speak of this to my students, I get the blank stare of someone who has not the slightest idea (or interest) in what I am talking about.

There is one lesson they have learned well, in and out of school: They do not belong, and they do not matter. Those worlds are not for them.

I know it cannot be true, but sometimes I get the feeling that I am the only voice they hear that goes against these messages.

I know that most politicians, teachers and agencies write them off, even as they rely on them. They are the ultimate “job creators.” Consider how many social services case workers, corrections officers, guidance counselors, drug and alcohol agencies, welfare and remedial education programs they keep full and busy.

The creation of our post World War II middle class was no accident; it was the direct (and deliberate) result of government investment in public schools, interstate transportation, affordable housing and higher education.

As always, it is our choice. We can invest in our children, the children of our neighborhoods, our city, our nation, or we can show them by our actions – or inactions – that we don’t care.

No one wants to be homeless, or stuck in a minimum wage job or semi-permanently on welfare. Their choices, or choices made by them, limit their options. As the years roll by, their options become fewer and more grim.

Education opens up their choices and gives them opportunities they never imagined possible. High school completion is not a ticket to success, but it is a ticket to the next step. And the more steps every student takes, the better off we all are.

Several surveys show that we get 8-10 dollars back for every dollar we invest in education.

Every so often, I run into one of my old students. They are living reminders that it is never about the money.

Poverty costs us vastly more than our middle-class investments. And those in poverty suffer far more than just a shortage of cash. A sense of belonging and a feeling of accomplishment and being appreciated and understood are beyond cost.

Poverty and lost opportunity cost us more than we may ever know.

It’s a math problem with a social cost and a human face.