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My Radical Wish List for Public Education

A school shooting 40 minutes down the road on January 4. Two lives lost, including the shooter’s. Seven more wounded, including the principal.


I think it makes sense to talk about gun laws. It’s frustrating that nothing ever happens.


I also think it makes sense to talk about mental health and the role schools play.


I’m a school psychologist. I’ve worked in schools in one capacity or another since 1996 – minus three years in Public Health and another three years as a stay-at-home mom. I have said it before (Specifically: HERE), I will say it again, and I will say it until the day I drop dead (hopefully of old age and not because somebody packing heat unhinged at Aldi):




And I don’t mean radically giving teachers guns. That’s a really dumb idea. Here is what I mean:


Every. Single. Child. Under the age of 16 must attend school, beginning with Kindergarten. It doesn’t matter where you live, where you came from, how you are abled, who your parents are, how much money you have, how your parents voted, if you have a home with 3 bathrooms or you live in the backseat of a rusty Buick. It doesn’t matter if your dad’s in prison or your grandmother is president of the bank or if you’re in foster care. It doesn’t matter if you speak English or Spanish or Swahili, or if you speak at all. … You. Must. Go. To. School.




SCHOOLS MUST GIVE YOU WHAT YOU NEED (educationally speaking).


Period. There are no exceptions.


Public schools touch EVERY human being in this country. Even if you don’t have a child or you didn’t move to the U.S. until you were 17 or older, there are people ALL AROUND YOU who are currently in the school system or are products of the school system. They will cook your food, be your Uber driver, bag your groceries, count your money at the bank, respond to your emergency, fix your bent fender, prescribe your meds, and sell you insurance.  


We need RADICAL changes in how we do school.


I’m closer to the end of my career than I am to the beginning of it -- probably not enough time to spearhead a revolution (Plus, I’m tired.). But I’m also turning 50 in May, and everyone knows that women become magical shamans the moment they turn 50. So, I’m creating a wish list, lining it with ferns and acorns, and dropping it into the sticky liquid of the world.


Here is my wish list for the RADICAL EMPOWERMENT of public schools.




This is priority one, because we’re going to need it to do everything else on my list.


In 2022, the U.S. spent $877 billion on the military. In comparison, we spent $538 billion on education. (This number reflects total combined state spending rather than the federal budget.) (Which was $76.4 billion, by the way.) In Iowa, we averaged $644 million per year between 2017-2022.


Listen, here is what I want: I want education spending to exceed military spending. Let’s go big and make everybody argue and get nervous. How about a cool trillion?


We don’t even have to decrease military spending, so don’t get your American flag bandana in a bunch. Just make every billionaire in the country sell a yacht a private island a seaside villa and a collection of vintage luxury sport vehicles. Lesser millionaires with ambitions will buy them. Donate that money to education. Boom. Done. You’re welcome. Nobody needs to be a billionaire, anyway – especially at the same time thousands of people are sleeping in cardboard boxes on the street. That disparity is one of the dumbest things about being human, and I don’t know why we’re not collectively more outraged by it.


Bonus: if we do everything on my list to radically empower public education, we won’t need all those tanks and missiles anyway, because we’ll be better global citizens with savvy problem solving skills.




The first thing we do with all that billionaire money is hire a crap ton of new, highly qualified teachers. Once we have the staff, we cap class sizes at 12. No class in any elementary or secondary education classroom anywhere exceeds 12 students. No exceptions.


Some of those classrooms might be smaller, and some might have two teachers. Please hold…




IEP. Individualized Education Plan. Currently, students entitled for Special Education have them. In this new revolutionary way to educate, however, we don’t need special education, per se. Not in name, anyway. We just have highly qualified teachers with classes small enough to individualize and diversify instruction for all students all the time.


In this new world of education, every school has its own School Psychologist (or someone similarly qualified) who helps evaluate the needs of all students and helps develop and tweak IEPs. If a student has more intensive needs, that classroom gets a second teacher and/or the students has their own associate.


There are no more high stakes eligibility decisions about whether or not a student is disabled enough to qualify for special education supports. No more fretting about kids who are on the cusp of general education with supplementation vs. special education. No more debating if a student is behind because they have crappy attendance or are still learning English or if they truly have a disability. We just... determine what the kid needs, and then we give them that. It no longer matters what we call it or which funding stream provides it. And because everyone is paid so handsomely and works in such positive and supported climates, we have plenty of staff to fill positions.


Kid needs X in order to read.

Kid gets X.

Kid reads.




We’re going to need a lot more teachers for all those small classes. And we’re going to need teachers who are alert and ready and prepared and excited and super into their jobs. Not paying them with beans and lint will help. Make teacher salaries competitive and desirable. Teachers should be able to support their families with only ONE job.


I am a single parent household. I’m the only one paying the bills around here. If you follow me because I play music, you might know that I stopped gigging for a while. I was tired and overwhelmed and anxious. I thought maybe I’d hang up music completely. But without gigs, money became really tight. That’s when I realized that music was a second job, and that I needed the income. I came back to gigging because the money helped with bills. It’s not a very romantic reason, and maybe I shouldn’t say that so openly, but it’s the truth.


At any rate, higher, more competitive wages could actually support a family. In addition to attracting qualified and ambitious teachers, maybe more of them would be men. Around these parts, if a 2-hetero-parent family sends one parent to a job while the other stays home, the male parent is more likely to be the one leaving for the job. Why does this matter? We need more male teachers – especially at the elementary levels.


[By the way, we also need more teachers of color.]


Which leads me to…




I currently serve three elementary schools. Out of all 3 of those schools combined, there are exactly 5 male classroom teachers (I’m not counting 2 gym teachers and 2 male band teachers.). That’s 5 out of… 40(?) teachers. Two men teach 4th grade. Two men teach special education. One man teaches 5th grade. Last year, one of those schools also had a male 2nd grade teacher. He has now left the classroom and is one of our behavior interventionists.


Culturally, I think we have this idea that the care and upbringing of young children is “women’s work”. In half of my childhood, we went to churches where, inspired by some cherry-picked Bible verse, women weren’t allowed to have leadership positions except in the case of children’s care and women’s groups. It’s bred into us – women care; men lead.


We have lower grade classrooms full of wonderful female teachers – smart, capable, strong women, yes – trying to model for and teach children, including male children, how to regulate emotions and be kind to one another and share toys and label big emotions rather than acting them out.


What if that kindergarten teacher (or the one across the hall) was a man, equally adept at modeling and teaching the boys in his classroom that it’s okay to feel and express and empathize? What if children learned that kindness and care were not gendered traits -- and they learned this not just by words but by example?


And that’s just with typically developing students.


I don’t have the specific data, but I can tell you with 100% confidence that the majority of students with big and aggressive behaviors are male. WHY is a question for another time.


In my previous school psych position, I dealt primarily with behavior. More than once, I found myself and the female teachers I worked with trying to manage the aggressive behaviors of students who could physically overpower us. In many cases, those same aggressive students would follow the direction of male staff. As much as it drives me bananas, it’s okay to say (even as a feminist) that sometimes maleness matters. I wish we had more male teachers in elementary schools.




Music, fine arts, poetry, theater… soul food. These are pathways to explore the tough parts of being human. “Take your broken heart and make it into art” (Carrie Fisher). Maybe some of us heal our broken hearts with long division and chemical equations, but we’re already providing that in classrooms. We need MORE adaptive ways to make meaning from the absurdity of being alive. We need MORE ways to make and appreciate beautiful things.


We need the arts. These are not hollow or fluffy add-ons. They are VITAL to creating communities of resilient and strong-hearted people. (Note: We might need to extend our school day but 1 hour to fit this in.)




We already have overlapping school/community services, but I want MORE and BETTER. All of the schools where I work have food banks and community liaisons. Children from poor families go home from school on Fridays with bags of food to make sure they have enough over the weekend. Our district provides means for families to request help with clothing, transportation, and housing. But it’s not enough.


What if we took it a step (or 10) further? What if we acknowledge that students (and parents) are best able to concentrate and prioritize education when they have what they need at home? What if school/education becomes the epicenter for this -- instead of 28 different confusing avenues for social services? What if in the evenings our schools are full of parent and family classes – for nutrition and wellness and money management and job skills and meditation and English and Spanish and parenting and emotional regulation and conflict management and travel planning and cooking and board games and exercise and parent-child basketball games? What if schools have day staff and evening staff? What if it all flows into and out of each other? What if while we nurture children, we also nurture families?




Once upon a time, there were multiple therapeutic day-school programs around the state. I worked in two of them back in the 90s. I don’t know what the specific numbers are, but I’m guessing over half of them are gone. It is very very very difficult to place a child in any kind of therapeutic program. They just don’t have space and/or staff.


Schools are obligated by something called FAPE to educate every single child. FAPE = Free and Appropriate Public Education. This pertains to every kind of learning difference along every kind of spectrum. No matter the child’s disability or degree of disability, we must serve them and do it meaningfully. If a child has a psychiatric disorder, we must provide them with an education. Sometimes that means the school recommends a therapeutic setting. In this case, if a program has space and the child is accepted, the school district pays for that child’s placement. (See? Just sending a child away does not absolve the district of responsibility.)


Do you know how often children with out-of-control behaviors who are dangerous to self and others are taken to hospitals and then released within 48 hours – sent back home and back to their neighborhood schools? Did you know that some of these widely touted behavior programs in our state can turn away children if they are “too violent” because the program doesn’t have the level of security needed? Those children are still entitled to FAPE. They return to their neighborhood schools where they are provided education in mostly self-contained classrooms with their own [horrifically underpaid, hourly wage earning] one-on-one associate.


These are real situations from my very own eyeballs.


When we RADICALLY EMPOWER public schools, we will shrink class sizes, pay everyone handsomely, individualize education, attract more and better staff, and make sure everyone gets what they need. And part of that is mental health supports.


Which probably means we need to…




If children in our schools demonstrate a need for healthcare – including mental healthcare -- we need to provide that care. And we need to provide it regardless of what insurance they have. How dumb is it that this isn’t a given? How dumb is it that families forego the care they need because they don’t have the right insurance and can’t afford it? Super dumb. Super counter-productive. Maddening.


This is another system that likely needs a RADICAL OVERHAUL, but I don’t know as much about it, so I’ll leave that to a medical blogger.




"Oh, but you ask too much!"

"Oh, but this is not sustainable!"

"Oh, but you can’t enable lazy no-good free-loaders!"

"Oh, but when I was in school we just pulled up our bootstraps and walked uphill both ways and that’s how we became such hardworking champions!"


Stop it right now. The system is broken. We’re a mess. The world has changed, its people have changed, their needs have changed. Our systems have to change, too.




1 – It will be weird and clumsy for a while, and we’ll get mad and bitey.

2 – There will be some abuses of the system, and your crotchety neighbor will complain about socialism.

3 – Some things won’t work as well as we thought they would, and we’ll have to problem solve.


Then, within a generation, we’ll see:


4 – Vastly improved academic outcomes

5 - Less crime.

6 – Less poverty.

7 – Less homelessness.

8 – Fewer unplanned pregnancies.

9 – Fewer preventable health problems.

10 – Less dependency on other government assistance programs.

11 – Better solutions for local, national, global, and environmental problems.

12 – Fewer assholes.

Let's make this happen, okay?

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