Wednesday, January 13, 2010

ACS Foundation Co-Director Leah Ferguson's Asheville Citizen-Times commentary

Vibrant public schools are building blocks for nation's future

Asheville is a town that prizes its independent spirit. So many of us relocated here because we wanted to create a life; not live someone else's idea of the American Dream. The education system serving our children mirrors our diverse community. We have a thriving home-school community, charter schools, private schools and the Asheville City Schools magnet system.
These options represent a wonderful collection of choices for parents.

I am a huge fan of choice, but there is something distressing going on that is worth our careful attention. There has been a shift from a collective sense of the value of public education to mistrust and distaste for public schools. Our attention has been turned inward toward our own families; many of us are losing the ideal of collective responsibility for educating all children through public education.

Countywide, just more than1,500 children are home-schooled. That means the vast majority of local children attend publicly funded schools. The public education system we've created is great, not perfect. But as saying goes, we must not let perfect be the enemy of good.

Nationally, we have a very successful public education system; locally, we have one of the best in the state. Our elementary schools have community-supported gardens; our school cafeterias partner with organizations such as ASAP to implement farm-to-school initiatives; corporate entities partner with us to enhance and support renewable energy and conservation education, and students learn by doing.

So, what's the price tag for such an enterprise? Locally, we invest only $27 a day on each student (2008 Asheville City Statistics of PPE, NCDPI). The special tax has allowed us to provide social workers and assistant principals who help case-manage the nearly 45 percent of Asheville City Schools students who live in poverty, including those in our seven city housing projects. With that nominal investment, children have access to thousands of dollars worth of technology, materials, interaction with at least two highly trained adults, health and wellness screenings, and interventions that address speech, language or mental health issues. Our money is well-spent.

The value of a public education system is immeasurable because it permeates every aspect of society. An educated population is essential for maintaining a quality community. What concerns me are conversations I am privy to where the speaker laments the state of public education while simultaneously abdicating responsibility for its improvement. My generation has in large part opted out of the grand ideal of public education. We see ourselves as innovators not investors. Perhaps our status as Reagan-era youths has something to do with our general mistrust of the quality of the education system. We experienced underfunded schools strapped with the responsibility of “accountability” that still seems too complicated to be trusted.

There are many who just feel that the “system is broken.” However, what I have seen has renewed my faith, not in an institutionalized system, but in the individuals and community that comprise our public system. Teachers and administrators have transformed bureaucratic rules and regulations into a process that, for the most part, has helped shine a light on previously dark areas of underachievement. This isn't to say that “accountability” doesn't need some serious revamping, it's just that it isn't surprising educators have been able to study and implement these accountability measures in the most beneficial ways.

By choosing not to opt out, but to opt in, the Asheville City Schools Foundation is helping to transform the system. The foundation does more than act as a conduit for community funds that are dedicated to educational purposes: we allow community members to be agents of change. From a broad perspective, they are able to work toward creating a better system, not just for their own child, but for all children in our community. Still we can't create the best system unless we have the buy-in of our entire community. What can you do? You can support the city schools by participating in events, educate yourself about our challenges and successes, champion the cause of excellent education for all children and support efforts like the ACS Foundation. In essence I'm asking you to Go Public. To get out there and say, “Heck yeah, I support public education,” because you are essential to the success of this grand experiment in sustaining our democracy.

Leah Ferguson is the co-director of the Asheville City Schools Foundation. More information about how you can Go Public! can be found online at

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