Las Vegas Sun

September 22, 2019

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Where I Stand:

Time to renew promise of educational opportunity for all

Editor’s note: As he does every August, Brian Greenspun is taking some time off and is turning over his Where I Stand column to others. Today’s guest columnist is Congresswoman Susie Lee.

Although summer is nowhere near over in the Las Vegas Valley, it is once again time to hit the books for hundreds of thousands of students in the Clark County School District. As the mother of two wonderful kids, this time of year always brings mixed emotions for me. I sadly trade the fun and adventure of summer for the busy mornings and afternoons but quieter days. At the same time, I enjoy the anticipation and positive energy that all of the students, teachers and parents bring into the classroom after a long summer.

Click to enlarge photo

Susie Lee

My parents taught me to never take education for granted. I grew up in a working-class Irish-Catholic family in Ohio, the proud daughter of a veteran father who worked in the steel industry and a mother who stayed at home to take care of me and my seven siblings. My parents understood the meaning of hard work. More important, they also made sure I never forgot why education was so important: It is the one thing that no one can take from you. They told me that with it, I could control my path to better opportunities. My parents did not have the means to send all of their children to four-year universities. So my siblings and I knew that we had to chart a path of our own — whether it was pursuing community college, state universities, trade schools or private colleges. And in the America I grew up in, fortunately, we had that opportunity.

Every year, educational opportunities that were once plentiful and affordable are now scarce and out of reach for millions of Americans. After decades of insufficient funding and disregard from our elected leaders, our public elementary, middle, and high schools fail class after class of students, particularly low income and minority, throughout the country. A bachelor’s degree, let alone any graduate degree, now costs as much as a house and has increasingly become accessible only to those with means. Apprenticeships and skills development programs are some of the most unsung casualties in our collective neglect of education, sending devastating shockwaves across America’s working class communities.

It is no secret that Nevada is often ground zero for some of our country’s educational shortcomings. From early childhood, to K-12, to higher education, we have never invested enough resources to reach the heights that I know our students, teachers and schools are capable of achieving. The recent prospect of a teachers strike that loomed over CCSD is the latest symptom of the greater crisis of our leaders failing our students, teachers and communities for decades.

Not only do we owe it to our children, but we owe it to the competitiveness of our state and our country to renew the promise of educational opportunity for all. Access to education changed my life. It got me to where I am today and it has guided my life’s mission to guarantee that anyone who wants to pursue any educational path has the opportunity to do so. That is precisely what inspired me to run for Congress.

I was a founding director of the Las Vegas After-School All-Stars, a program that ensures underprivileged students have access to enriching after-school programs in sports, the arts and more — something that is critical to educational engagement and achievement, yet seems reserved for families with means in our valley. I was also the president of Communities in Schools of Nevada, a dropout prevention organization that coordinates with community services to provide our most at-risk students with the support they need to navigate the barriers that poverty poses to educational success. I spent my six-year tenure working hard to close the achievement gap, improving graduation rates and growing the program to serve over 68,000 students in Nevada. My time at these phenomenal organizations convinced me that I had to bring the fight for Nevada’s students to the halls of Congress, which has long passed the buck when it comes to setting quality education for all as a national priority.

Since my term started in January, I have introduced the Keep Our PACT Act and signed on as an original cosponsor to the Rebuild America’s Schools Act. My goal with the Keep Our PACT Act is in its full name: the Keep Our Promise to America’s Children and Teachers Act. What’s the promise? In the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, the federal government promised to help address inequity in education in school districts across the United States by providing a high-quality education to every student. The federal government also promised to provide 40 percent of the national current average per-pupil expense for students with disabilities in the Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004.

I’m sure you’ve figured it out by now, but the federal government has not kept its promise, and the effect on Nevada’s public education system has been devastating. Nevada public schools have been shortchanged over $4 billion by the federal government over the past 10 years. The average statewide 2019-2020 per pupil spending estimate of $6,028 poignantly reminds us that this shortchanging needs to stop now. My bill will hold Washington accountable and guarantee that Nevada’s kids get the full support they deserve.

The Rebuild America’s Schools Act is straightforward. Too many CCSD students have to learn in makeshift classrooms in portables. To add insult to injury, teachers in both portables and brick-and-mortar classrooms often have to teach overcrowded classes with at times 50 students or more. This is no way to learn. For our kids to succeed, they need facilities that provide the necessary comfort for optimal learning and fewer students per teacher. The bill would provide funding to make sure that school buildings can serve students adequately. I also authored and included a provision in the initial bill that mandates a study of the impact of overcrowding on students. Our kids need schools they can take pride in. A broken down school building packed with students is nothing more than a sad reminder to our kids that the grownups have failed them.

As we begin another school year, which is now under a cloud — again — of insufficient funding, I make the commitment that I will do what I was sent to Washington to do: make sure that education is a national priority and that we deliver for our kids, giving every single young person in Nevada a fair shot at success.

U.S. Rep. Susie Lee, D-Nev., was elected in the 3rd Congressional District in 2018 after serving as president of Communities in Schools Nevada.