McCain offers to sacrifice American education


John McCain’s campaign suggests the remaining weeks of the presidential campaign should concentrate on personalities rather than issues.  Why?

McCain’s issues sound like the failed policies of the George Bush administration, so it should be obvious why he doesn’t want to talk about them.

We have a higher duty, especially on the issues of education.  We need to live up to the challenge of young Dalton Sherman (who gave a more substantial speech than Sarah Palin, I think:  “‘Do you believe in me?’  5th grader Dalton Sherman inspires Dallas teachers.”)

In his acceptance speech Thursday night, McCain promised to continue the War on Education, hurling bolts — okay, aiming sparks — at much of the education establishment, but promising nothing that might actually improve education and help out great kids like Dalton Sherman.

Here I’ve taken the text of McCain’s speech as delivered (from the interactive site at The New York Times) and offer commentary.  For McCain’s sake, and because it reveals the threat to education, I’ve left in the applause indicators.

McCain said:

Education — education is the civil rights issue of this century.

(APPLAUSE)
Equal access to public education has been gained, but what is the value of access to a failing school? We need…

(APPLAUSE) We need to shake up failed school bureaucracies with competition, empower parents with choice.
(APPLAUSE)

Competition has never been demonstrated to improve education.  In state after state where it’s been tried, we’ve found corruption tends to squander the education dollars, and the education dollars themselves are diluted and diverted from struggling public schools.  If John McCain promised to help New Orleans by diverting money from the Army Corps of Engineers to “competition in the levee building business,” people would scoff.  If he promised to divert money from the Pentagon to offer “competition” in the national security business, he’d be tarred and feathered by his fellow veterans.

We need to make schools work, period.  Taking money away from struggling schools won’t help, and taking money from successful schools would be unjust, and a sin — in addition to failing to help.  40 years of malign neglect of education in inner cities and minority areas should not be the excuse to dismantle America’s education system which remains the envy of the rest of the world despite all its problems, chiefly because it offers access to all regardless of income, birth status, color or location.

Millions of people fight to get to the U.S. because of the opportunities offered by education here.  McCain offers to snuff out that beacon of liberty.  If his position differs from George W. Bush’s, I don’t know where. If his position differs from that of the anti-U.S. government secessionists and dominionists, it’s difficult to tell how.

Let’s remove barriers to qualified instructors, attract and reward good teachers, and help bad teachers find another line of work.
(APPLAUSE)

The No Child Left Behind Act prompted states to develop brand new, impenetrable bureacracies to grant teaching certificates to people who do not go through state-approved schools of education.  These bureacracies often are unaccountable to elected officials, or to appointed officials.  They were quickly thrown together to regulate a brand new industry of training programs designed to meet the technical requirements of state enabling legislation, and often deaf to the needs and requirements of local schools.

The chief barriers to qualified instructors are low pay, entrenched administration, and a slew of paperwork designed to “expose” teachers in their work rather than aid students in education, which all too often keep qualified teachers from getting teaching done, and discourage qualified people from other professions from getting into the business.  Who could afford to get into telephone soliciting if every phone call had to be documented by hand, with evaluations that take longer than the phone calls?  That’s what teachers in “failing” schools face daily, and it’s a chief factor in the exodus of highly qualified teachers from public schools over the last six years (a trend that may be accelerating).

This proposal would make sense if there were a backlog of qualified and highly-effective teachers trying to get into teaching — but quite the opposite, we have a shortage of teachers nationwide (check out the debates in Utah last year on their poorly-planned voucher program, which sounds a lot like what McCain is proposing).

Has McCain had any serious experience public schools in the last 22 years?  (I’m wondering here; I don’t know.)

When a public school fails to meet its obligations to students, parent — when it fails to meet its obligations to students, parents deserve a choice in the education of their children. And I intend to give it to them.
(APPLAUSE)
Some may choose a better public school. Some may choose a private one. Many will choose a charter school. But they will have the choice, and their children will have that opportunity.
(APPLAUSE)

Of course, with McCain taking money from the public schools, it will be difficult to find a “better” public school, ultimately.  Here in Texas we’ve experimented for more than a decade with a statewide plan to shuffle money from “rich” school districts to poorer districts, under a plan generally and cleverly called “the Robin Hood plan.”  We still have good and excellent schools in districts across the state, but an increasing number of the designated-rich districts have smashed into tax rate ceilings, and are cutting programs from school curricula, and extra-curricular activities.

Charter schools in Texas are numerous, but in trouble.  Few of them, if any, have been able to create the extra capital investment required to build good school buildings, or especially to provide things like good laboratory classrooms for science classes, auditoriums with well-equipped stages for drama, literature, and general sessions of the entire school, or adequate facilities for physical education and recreation — let alone extracurricular athletics.

Charter schools and private schools often short science education.  A coalition of private schools sued the University of California system to require the universities to accept inferior science education, rather than provide good science education.  (A judge tossed the suit out; the coalition is appealing the decision.) Worse, this coalition includes some of the nation’s best private, religious schools.  When a group claimed as the best plead for acceptance of mediocrity, it’s time to re-examine whether resort to that group is prudent.  When the “best” private schools plead to lower the standards in science, it’s time to beef up the public schools instead.

Worse, many charter schools in Texas and elsewhere are riddled with incompetence, and a few riddled with corruption.  The Dallas Morning News this morning carries a story about a group running two charter schools, one in the Dallas area and one in the Houston area, both in trouble for failing to measure up to any standards of accountability, in testing, in other achievement, in teaching, or in financial accounting.  Economists note that free markets mean waste in some areas (ugly shoes don’t sell — the shoe maker will stop making ugly shoes, but those already made cannot be recalled).  Administration appears to be one area of enormous waste in “school choice.”

Several American urban districts have tried a variety of private corporations to operate schools on a contract basis.  If there is a successful experiment, it has yet to be revealed.  These experiments crashed in San Francisco, Dallas, Philadelphia and Baltimore, from sea to shining sea. Continued hammering at the foundations of good education, calling it “competition” or “peeing in the soup,” isn’t going to produce the results that American students, and parents, and employers, deserve.

Choice between a failing public school and a corrupt or inept charter school, is not a choice.  Why not invest the money where we know it works, in reducing class size and improving resources?  That costs money, but there is no cheap solution to excellence.

Senator Obama wants our schools to answer to unions and entrenched bureaucrats. I want schools to answer to parents and students.
(APPLAUSE)
And when I’m president, they will.
(APPLAUSE)
My fellow Americans, when I’m president, we’re going to embark on the most ambitious national project in decades.

Here we see how out of touch with America John McCain really is.  Does he think that any school system in the nation “answers to unions and entrenched bureaucrats?”  Seriously?  Does he realize the “entrenched bureaucrats” are anti-union?

Seriously.  Think about this.  Texas is the nation’s second largest state.  There is no teacher’s union here worth the name.  State law forbids using strike as a tool for bargaining or negotiation.  Teachers here generally are opposed to unions anyway (don’t ask me to explain — most of them voted for George Bush, before he showed his stripes — but there is no pro-union bias among Texas teachers).  Teachers unions are either much reduced in power in those cities where they used to be able to muster strikes, like Detroit or New York City, or they have agreed to cooperate with the anti-union proposals that offer any hope of improving education.  Read that again:  I’m saying unions have agreed to give up power to help education.

So what is the real problem?  The bureaucracy choking schools today is not the fault of teachers.  Significantly, it’s required by the No Child Left Behind Act.  But even that is not the chief problem in schools, and those problems are not from teachers.

Teachers did not move auto manufacturing out of Detroit.  GM did that.  Fighting the teachers union won’t bring back Detroit’s schools.  Charter schools aren’t going to do it, either.  Teachers didn’t drown New Orleans.  The failure of the levees after Hurricane Katrina did that.  Busting the unions in New Orleans has done nothing to improve education, as all of New Orleans struggles, and as former Big Easy residents resist going back so long as the schools are a mess.  Our schools in Texas have taken on thousands of students from New Orleans and other areas hammered by storms — public schools, not charter schools.  In many cases, parents are choosing public schools John McCain wants to push kids out of.  Go figure.

Hard economic times hammer schools.  Teachers didn’t create the housing bubble, and it’s certain that teachers were not the ones who failed to regulate the mortgage brokers adequately.  We can’t improve education if we don’t have the necessary clues about what the problems really are.

Public education is an essential pillar of American republican democracy.  Public education is the chief driver of our economy. McCain appears wholly unaware of the conditions in America’s schools, and he appears unwilling to push for excellence.  Instead, to drowning schools, McCain promises to through a bucket of water, and maybe an anchor to keep them in place.  He’s urging a road to mediocre schools.  Mediocrity to promote political conservatism, or just to get elected, is a sin.

McCain’s running mate brutalized the public library in her term as mayor of Wassilla.  If she has a better record on education since becoming governor, I’d like to hear about it.

Teachers, did you listen to McCain’s speech?  How are you going to vote?

18 Responses to McCain offers to sacrifice American education

  1. Oops. Brain cramp. The word is “conversation”.

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  2. Let’s look at Texas. The North Texas Conservative
    (http://ntconservative.wordpress.com/2008/09/08/256/ )says:
    “What democrats like Rick Noriega do not seem to realize is that the State of Texas is among the top fifteen states as far as public school spending is concerned, but Texas is also among the bottom fifteen in the quality of the education that is being provided. Why is that? State spending on public education has increased over fifty percent over the last decade. Per student revenue has gone up over forty percent, while enrollment has only gone up fifteen percent. Over the last decade SAT scores have been at a stalemate and in many cases have declined. Only fifty percent of every dollar that is spent towards public education by the State of Texas is put towards the classroom. More money is being put into public education, but there have not been any positive results to comfort taxpayers who are asked constantly by independent school districts that they live in to give more and more money, because these school districts say they do not have enough, which could not be farther from the truth.”

    I don’t know if the numbers are true yet they imply that increases in money do not necessarily result in improved test scores.

    I think I will bow out of this conservation and look a little on my own. Thanks for tweaking my curiosity on this.

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  3. […] Ed, who is apparently rub-a-dub-dubbing in Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub, takes a look at the positions that McCain takes on education – and the consequences of those positions – in McCain Offers to Sacrifice American Education. […]

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  4. Ed Darrell says:

    Costs will vary dramatically from state to state. New Jersey spends the most, Utah among the least. It’s a lot cheaper to educate kids in Utah, generally, but some districts must bus kids more than 100 miles round trip every day, and that chews up a huge part of their budgets.

    We have 15,000 school boards in the nation. Which one do you want numbers for?

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  5. Thanks, Ed. I was not advocating the use of vouchers but trying to determine what is the cost of a quality education. Every year somebody says our schools do not have enough money to do the job right. Okay, so how much is that amount?
    The Cato Institute says $6,857 is the average cost for the results we see today. I found their figure but I have not searched other places. And we all assume that it is not enough. Nobody wants to say “We can produce a quality education if we spend $x, xxx per student.”
    Why is that?
    Probably because our best minds in public education don’t know. And now you know the problem. We don’t have a correlation between student abilities, school programs offered, cost of education, and results achieved.
    We cannot produce a quality education, repeatedly and demonstrably, if we do not know this.
    Like your site. RC

    Like

  6. Ed Darrell says:

    When you add in the heavily subsidized Catholic schools, you can bring the price of tuition down, sure — but not the cost. CATO’s people are pretty crafty, doing a comparison of tuition that masks costs and makes it appear as though private schools are somehow doing the job much more cheaply than public schools.

    While I think cost savings can be realized, it’s unlikely to be done outside of an already-established school system where the capital costs can be held to zero, and tuition will not be competitive unless there is a heavy subsidy from somewhere.

    Here in Texas we had a billionaire promise to make the point by offering the equivalent of a tuition voucher to almost any kid in San Antonio who wanted to switch schools. What we discovered is that the transportation costs to get kids to private schools sometimes outweighed the tuition, but even without those costs, few middle-income families could afford tuition.

    There are other problems with CATO’s analysis, including their unstated assumption that all private schools get the results of Andover without the costs — which is patently untrue — but the most offensive issue I think is their labeling our democratically elected school boards as a “socialist” system, similar to the Soviet Union. Either CATO’s education guys got a badly-done lobotomy before they wrote that, or they are pulling your leg. One of the key problems of our school system is the decentralized nature of more than 15,000 locally-elected school boards setting policy, rather than a few entities or one national board. Every school system which outperforms the U.S. (on skewed measures, but the point remains) uses a national curriculum much more “socialized” than the old Soviet Union. CATO can’t have it both ways.

    Citizen, do a search for “Utah vouchers” and follow the links from Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub to other sources. We had this debate last year, when Utah’s congenitally conservative, penny-pinching voters rejected vouchers because they simply cannot work without destroying public schools, and even then there is not a great chance.

    Arm a parent with a $3,000 voucher and let them choose, most will choose to spend that voucher at their local public school. The problem with the vampire vouchers is they require that we suck the blood out of education. If you want to make things competitive, put in new money vouchers. When those parents spend them at their public schools, you’ll see results.

    We can’t help education by shooting the horse that pulls the cart.

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  7. “In fact, Education Department figures show that the average private elementary school tuition in America is less than $2,500. The average tuition for all private schools, elementary and secondary, is $3,116, or less than half of the cost per pupil in the average public school, $6,857. A survey of private schools in Indianapolis, Jersey City, San Francisco, and Atlanta shows that there are many options available to families with $3,000 to spend on a child’s education. Even more options would no doubt appear if all parents were armed with $3,000 vouchers.”- CATO Institute

    Link:http://www.cato.org/pubs/briefs/bp-025.html

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  8. lowerleavell says:

    Perhaps financial issues are legitimate problems, but could they be used as an excuse not to teach effectively?

    In our church, we’ve been hit hard by the economic crunch as well. That does not mean that even though we don’t have power point, and even have great technology for our kid’s programs, that we can’t teach the people who come to our church. More money would be nice, and we could really use it, but that doesn’t negate our responsibility to use what we have effectively. If I do a sloppy job as a pastor simply because I am not paid enough, have to pay for many things out of pocket, etc, then I am not being a good steward of what I DO have and should never be entrusted with more.

    Perhaps there is a parallel with our schools.

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  9. reasonablecitizen says:

    Thanks for your cute reply. Let’s talk money. How much money will produce the quality of schooling we all think is needed?

    Every year somebody says we need more money for schools. Okay, it is now September 2008, how much money will it take? Does that include infrastructure, teacher salary, bus rides, after school programs, field trips, and sports?

    What are the top performing public schools in the nation, what are their budgets, how many students do they have, what are their programs, and what are their results?

    Someone must know this or can point the way. Everybody talks public education and the need for more money. Surely, someone has studied this and we all should know what was learned.

    Point the way and I will follow.

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  10. Badger3k says:

    reasamablecitizen – enough to get them what they need. How about enough money to buy school supplies that the state says we have to provide. How about enough money to pay for laboratory supplies, so that each student has a microscope to use instead of sharing one per four students. How about me not having to spend over $600 of my own money to make sure that we could do the work we needed to do.

    I don’t know of any teacher in my school who will vote for McSame, but I am sure there are some. The few reasons I have heard in favor of him seem to be fear-based (the “Obama will take our guns” bs, or the fear of “Teh Mooslim”).

    I also have a friend who worked in a charter school. I thought my budget was bad until I heard her case – she really had no budget whatsoever, had to get her supervisor to approve anything (and he worked about 3 hours away, and she had no computer to send anything to him. She had minimal guidance but high expectations. It’s a wonder (and a credit to her) that she had managed to teach anything to those poor kids. Charter schools here in Texas are a mess.

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  11. reasonablecitizen says:

    A question for everyone: How much money is enough to spend on education? Please provide a specifc amount. How much is enough? $2,000 per child per year? $4,000 per child per year? How much is enough?

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  12. Richard says:

    I listened to McCains speach, never did he say that he wanted to take money awy from education, instead he wanted to give parents more choice by letting them determine where the money is spent. Pray tell, why don’t you want parents to have a choice and a say so in their childrens education?

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  13. I may be alone on this.

    Shabby books are not a problem for me if they are the right books to learn from. Four year old computers are not a problem for me as long as they are an adjunct to teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic.
    I have two nephews that came from suburban schools who could not write their names without help. They typed or printed their names for the past five years of school and lost the skill. They also cannot spell as a result of spell-check software.

    In our work place, typing into the database is critical to creating records for customer service. We have established a quality metric to measure the number of misspellings by person to demonstrate the importance of spelling correctly. There are acknowledgements between supervisor and employee when the measurements are below acceptable levels.

    What value is a poor education that does not serve the adult?

    I support increased state involvement in schools and decreased federal involvement. Let those high-technology states fund the education needed by their industries. Let the manufacturing states fund the education needed to sustain their industries and needs of their citizens. Permit farming states to serve their citizens and businesses, too.

    May the federal government stop trying to determine the one-size shoe that will fit all feet.

    Schools have become a place to take field trips, expand the possibilities, promote alternative points of view. They should be places to learn the basics and develop learning and thinking skills applicable to their environ.

    Home-schooled Amish children know more about each major subject in 8th grade than do suburban highschool seniors. Two of my colleagues have elected to home school as a result.

    More money for schools? I would lean towards higher expectations and basic education.

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  14. […] especially invite comments on the contrasts between Sen. McCain’s acceptance speech and Gov. Palin’s […]

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  15. andbrooke says:

    There’s no such thing as “simply pouring money into the system”- at least from what I’ve seen. In our schools in Utah, especially in my fast-growing district, we need more money put on the WPU (the general school funding) in order to provide enough schools and teachers for all the students. Instead of adding money to the WPU in an ongoing basis, our legislature appropriates money for one-time use, and then it disappears. This year, Utah legislators can proudly say they’ve added $20 million dollars to the education budget for merit pay, but the teachers know it won’t be there next year. We will spend hours and hours going through the process to apply for merit pay, only to be told next year that the money isn’t there.

    Another problem with this temporary funding (and some ongoing funding) is that it’s often so tied up in red tape and restrictions it’s impossible to get what you really need. For example, we have a large budget for textbook adoption, but we aren’t allowed to spend it on anything but paper textbooks. Last time around, the English department decided we didn’t need new textbooks as much as we needed an additional English teacher, even if it was for only one year and part-time. Nope. What about laptops for writing in the classroom? Nope. What about software and online textbooks? Nope. Paper textbooks were all we could get, and they were what we didn’t need.

    It’s frustrating. We’re told to make do with huge class sizes and lack of supplies when the money isn’t there. When the money is there, we’re not allowed to spend it where we need it.

    Adding money to the WPU is expensive, but there’s just no way around it. If someone tries to tell you charters can run cheaper, they either don’t know or they’re lying. In Utah, charter advocates said for years that they could run schools more cheaply. And now that they have their schools, they ask to be funded at the same level as traditional public schools. With all that’s required of schools by law, the schools just don’t come cheap.

    Is simply pouring more money into the system going to fix everything? How can you know if you’ve never tried? And in Utah, we’ve never tried.

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  16. lowerleavell says:

    Ed,

    These are legitimate concerns. Is simply pouring more money into the system going to fix everything, or is there more to it than that? While I agree that it is wrong to let a school go downhill like you described (not replacing lightbulbs, making teachers pay for their own tools, etc.), is there more to the problem than just funding?

    What would you do to make it better?

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  17. Ed Darrell says:

    People like to go to school close to home, generally. When we close a neighborhood school, it has terrible effects on the neighborhood. Among other things, it tells the kids and the families that we don’t care enough to make the investment in that neighborhood to make the school work. The NCLB rules that say we close schools were not crafted by any educator, nor by anyone who has ever been mayor of a town they gave a damn about, I’ll wager.

    No school wants to do badly, Joe. It’s not a question of wanting to compete. But let me tell you, the barriers to being competitive are massive. Come on over to a major school district and see how it works: Teachers may have computers, but it was from a program to get computers to the teachers that lost funding four years ago, so the computers are four years old, and new teachers only have them if they buy them personally (where was the last place you worked where you had to purchase all your tools?). The building is run down, but budget cuts to custodial staff mean no repairs get done without a major project — the bonds won’t pass. Books are shabby. In many schools there are not enough to go around. There are no printers for the classroom computers, and the internet connections are bad.

    The library computers have printers, but they’re reserved for students. The printers there lack toner, and the paper is out.

    Teachers have to e-mail their lesson plans downtown every week.

    There are no projectors in most classrooms — unless a teacher spends $1,500 out of her pocket (many do). Markers for the white boards are not provided. Chalk for chalkboard is not provided. Fluorescent lights are replaced in the summer — if they burn out during the school year, they stay out unless the teacher replaces them at her cost, on her time.

    Restrooms frequently run out of towels and toilet paper. With the new charter school taking 200 students away, custodial staff was cut, and so was money for supplies. Restrooms are serviced once a day, usually.

    If you’ve looked at private schools, you know that the amount of money available from vouchers won’t cover tuition, and in most cases can’t be used for transportation. So if the kid’s school gets closed, it’s just more hassle for the family to get the kid to school. If it’s a private school, it will be a good distance away. If public transit works, that’s good. Most cities in the Bible Belt don’t have workable public transit — some lack public transit altogether. The private school will generally charge $2,000 to $8,000 per year over and above the money a voucher might provide. For a family with an annual income of $24,000, such costs are farther away than any pipe dream.

    Sure, you can say there is competition in schooling. But it’s competition that crushes anyone without a lot of money. If the charter school takes no more than the amount of money the state gives, it does not include the capital investment for gymnasiums, playing fields, locker rooms, pools, auditoriums, practice rooms, nor even laboratories or classrooms. Those are capital investments, made with bond monies in public schools. If the charter school takes money for those things out of the money it gets from the state, it has to pay less for teachers and curriculum.

    Everyone has a right to send their kid to the best private school in the world in a capitalist society, Joe. All you have to do is be rich. There is a tiny handful of private schools in the U.S. who can provide an education for less than public schools — most cost much more.

    And then we run into what we find in the Duncanville ISD. The high school gets an influx of bright students every year that is invisible the year before. Kids drop out of private schools and home schooling to get the AP classes offered to better students in the high school. To get more than one or two AP classes at a school, or to get an International Baccalaureate program, you need a lot of students to draw from. Our good, better and best public high schools offer outstanding education.

    In a free market, where competition was encouraged, those schools would be rewarded with more money, right? Enemies of public schooling always propose a lose-win system of competition. If the private schools do better, they get more money, more students, less regulation. If the public schools do better, they get to live, with less money and more regulation.

    I wouldn’t mind competition, really, if it were competition where the public schools aren’t handicapped from the start.

    Public education is for the rest of us shmoes. The question is, do we want to provide the democracy-reinforcing schools that Jefferson envisioned, or do we want to kill public education completely — because we’re on that latter path, and when the public schools are gone, so will our freedoms follow.

    Wanting to do better doesn’t do any good unless and until the legislature and school board get more money to the school to do better.

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  18. lowerleavell says:

    I may be just naive here with not a lot of experience in education (I know this is your strong suite Ed). But if some of those inner city schools actually fail and get funds sent elsewhere, wouldn’t the kids have the opportunity to leave and go somewhere better?

    Wouldn’t it make schools want to do better, because if they don’t give their kids a good education, the parents will send them somewhere that will?

    Also, with the private and charter schools, wouldn’t increased students and revenue allow them to provide more extra-curricular activities and help improve quality?

    In AZ where I used to live, there was a large Christian school that had tons of students who couldn’t go because their parents couldn’t afford it. However, the school was one of the best in the state for grades. Shouldn’t everyone have a right to send their kids to the school that would give their kids the highest academic education?

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