Making the case for public schools, the highest-stakes poker game around

Recently I posted a link on my Facebook page to a Slate blog piece by Allison Benedikt: If you send your kid to private school, you are a bad person. It drew some negative feedback as well as a very positive response. Benedikt, who is a parent, provocatively suggests if you do this, you are “not bad like murderer bad—but bad like ruining-one-of-our-nation’s-most-essential-institutions-in-order-to-get-what’s-best-for-your-kid bad. So, pretty bad.”

Benedikt then goes on to argue that people who abandon public K-12 education undermine the foundations that make for a healthier, more democratic society. In defense of her seemingly provocative view, she claims that the bad things she did with bad kids during her public school days taught her more about life than reading Walt Whitman. In the end, she pleads with the middle-class moms and dads of the country reading her piece to go to bat for public schools in the most visceral way.

There’s a big public health story here too, but first, let me give some personal background and why this resonated profoundly with me.

How I endured then cherished my public school experience

I have friends who send/have sent their kids to private schools, and I do not think they are bad. But having attended K-12 public schools my formative years, I am very biased to Benedikt’s point of view. It’s my tribe, those public school grads. You might call me a bulldog on this point. My mother was a public school teacher as well, so I know the exhausting and harsh down sides from the perspective of such educators.

The most important things I learned about life are the ones I clawed together in that often chaotic petri dish, and at times it was chaos too. While I think many aspects of U.S. public schools truly stink, mainly the large mega schools and school systems that reward jocks and criminally fail to prevent abusive bullying of all stripes, I cannot deny the value of socializing in this publicly-funded mosh pit provides.

A seen from my graduating class of 1983 from University City Senior High School--yes I'm in there, bad hair and all.

A snapshot from my graduating class of 1983 from University City Senior High School; yes I’m in there, bad hair and all.

The system I attended til 1983 in University City,  next to St. Louis, was good (in some ways), but very divided in terms of who was on the fast track to say a great music college and who was on the fast track to say joining the armed forces. Both paths seem good to me now, and I was among those without a clear path. People came from respectable professional families (the ones whose parents were high-earning types like doctors) and from those living on the margins. The realities of race, and in my mind class, were omnipresent. During my years in that system, grades 3-12, the student population was roughly 70% black, 25% white, and 5% all other (Latino, Asian, Middle Eastern).

There were great teachers, and awful ones. There were clicks, stoners, nerds, punks, jocks, super achievers, motorheads (people I respected the most), future criminals, future drop-outs, future business people, musicians, and hip hop artists. Violence lurked in many places, too. I saw three extremely violent and criminal assaults (two on campus, one off) during a several-year stint. I experienced more than my fair share of racial harassment, and I was hospitalized after being cold cocked on a school setting—a crime I partially brought on myself, but also with racial undertones. But hey, who says high school is supposed to be walk through the flowers?

A group shot from my 1983 graduating class; I am not seen in this one.

A group shot from my 1983 graduating class; I am not seen in this one.

In the end, I would not trade this for anything. All of this gave me the tools to deal with an increasingly diverse country, where skills at communicating cross-culturally matter in every professional setting, and in most personal interactions too. In a more fundamental way, I felt equipped to stand my ground and hold my own anywhere in the world, and really appreciate people on their own terms. It gave me a window to really get to know people.

Schools becoming less diverse and more segregated

Today, however, it is more likely students finishing their K-12 education will not have experienced something like what I did—a school that has true racial and cultural diversity without deep segregation at the district level. According to a 2009 report by the University of California at Los Angeles’ Civil Rights Project, schools in the United States are more segregated today than they have been in more than 40 years. Worse, millions of non-white students are trapped in so-called “dropout factory” (public) high schools, where large numbers do not graduate and remain unprepared for the challenges of an increasingly knowledge-based economy of technological haves and have-nots.

While our nation has come a long way since the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case of 1954 made it illegal to segregate schools based on race, there are still many problems. A typical example is in Richmond, Va., where a recent news report found that 40 years after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected consolidation of public school districts to achieve racial integration in the Richmond area, one in every three black students in the Richmond-Petersburg region attends a school with a population that is at least 90 percent black and 75 percent poor.

So what right-minded parent, black or white or brown, would want their child in a school that is segregated and all but likely underfunded? It is a non-starter, really.

School Enrollment comparison

The U.S. Department of Education’s data show private school enrollment has dropped, mostly due to declining attendance at Catholic schools.

Public vs. private schools by the numbers

According to the U.S. Department of Education in 2008, the number of public schools in the United States outnumbered private schools (including religious schools) by about a 5-1 margin (65,990  vs. 13,864). In the past 15 years (1995-2009), private school enrollment actually dropped from 12% of all enrollment to less than 10%. The main reason is attributed to the drop in Catholic school enrollment.

Economic downturns also led to falling enrollment. Due to the increasing decline of the U.S. middle class and the concentration of all wealth in the hands of a few Americans, the disparities have even worsened. Between 2009 and 2011, the mean net worth of the wealthiest 7% of households rose 28%, while the mean net worth of households in the lower 93% slipped 4%, according to a Pew Research Center.

According to Jack Jennings, founder and former president of the Center on Education Policy, the real issue remains how well the nation will educate the 90% majority—the ones with increasingly less wealth—who are not privileged and have less resources and who comprise the majority of our public school student population. They will be the future soldiers, medical professionals, politicians, scientists, engineers, construction workers, and more. “If we want a bright future, we must focus national attention on making public schools as good as they can be,” Jenning says.

At last count, about 49 million kids were enrolled in K-12 education, or nearly or a sixth of the U.S. population. So the debate about where we educate these youngest citizens and our up-and-coming leaders is about as important issue as any we face as a nation, and as citizens of our communities and country.

Jessica Strauss, in a June 2013 New York Times piece on the country’s growing education divide, pointedly notes: “The truth is that there are two very different education stories in America. The children of the wealthiest 10% or so do receive some of the best education in the world, and the quality keeps getting better. For most everyone else, this is not the case. America’s average standing in global education rankings has tumbled not because everyone is falling, but because of the country’s deep, still-widening achievement gap between socioeconomic groups.”school_choice

Education, health, and ethnic diversity–fused at the hip

So where should kids get the tools they need to prepare them for their life challenges, a turbulent economy that is divided by knowledge and technology, and the diversity in a country that will be less than 50% white by 2043. Navigating the nation’s ethnic and linguistic diversity will be as critical for someone running a small business as it will be for a highly trained medical professional serving patients with different ways of dealing with health care.

Research over the past 20 years has generated countless studies consistently showing how a person’s health is driven largely by underlying factors, or the social determinants of health. In short, one’s education will predict a child’s future health as good as any other causal factor.

So as a nation, if we also want to promote opportunities for everyone to achieve good health, as well as good jobs, there must be a public policy imperative to ensure that the poor, underachieving, increasingly non-white public schools do not get short-changed. Does that mean more blog posts and rants chastising liberal middle-class parents and taunting them? Perhaps that’s one way to raise awareness, as Benedikt tried and I think succeeded.

But I’m less convinced parents of any race who want their kids to be learning Mandarin by age 8 and making high-def feature movies by grade 10 (like students do at the elite Annie Wright School of Tacoma, Wash.) will dare risk their child’s well-being for the larger social good. If parents are fortunate to be economically well off in that narrowing minority of “haves,” they will choose the high-price, high-quality schools like this leafy campus and pay tens of thousands of dollars for that rare privilege. Because I am not a parent, I can avoid this very hard decision, so I am very lucky.

Such advantage-bestowed kids will undoubtedly go on to be successful leaders. But I am less inclined to believe they will be the right leaders, who have a visceral sense of what’s best for all of us, though many of them will be the ones driving the agenda in many of the organizations that impact us the most.

A trip to Indian country and the Omak Stampede

So what is “Indian country”?

Drummers gather to perform at the Indian encampment at Omak’s Stampede, in August 2012.

A now-deceased doctor friend of mine who dedicated his life to serving the Native community in the Indian Health Service used the expression a lot describing where he worked in New Mexico and Alaska. It is a legal term, codified in treaty rights, federal regulations, and court decisions. Indian country can be a physical place, associated with customs and cultures of the continent’s first peoples. It is also a state of mind. You literally know you are in Indian country when you go there. There are place names and of course the people. I grew up in St. Louis, Mo., which sits on the mighty Mississippi River (Ojibwe for “great river”), and I felt connected to Indian country there because of the great muddy and the phenomenal Cahokia Mounds just east of the city in Illinois. I knew I was living on historic Indian land even as a kid.

The largest Native mound in the United States is located at the historic Cahokia Mounds, just east of St. Louis.

I have lived the last 16 years of my life in what I definitely consider to be Indian Country, Alaska and Washington State. Alaska felt much more like Indian country to me. Anchorage, my home for six years, is very much a Native city in terms of population (about 16 percent). I rarely feel that connection in modern, congested, urban Seattle.  But I recently took a four-day trip to the hot, upper plateau of central Washington, from the Methow Valley to Omak, and indeed felt I had landed four-square in Indian country again.

According to a section of federal legislation pertaining to Native Americans, “Indian country” refers to three specific criteria:

-All land within the limits of any Indian reservation under the jurisdiction of the United States government, notwithstanding the issuance of any patent, and including rights-of-way running through the reservation;

-All dependent Indian communities within the borders of the United States whether within the original or subsequently acquired territory thereof, and whether within or without the limits of a State; and

-All Indian allotments, the Indian titles to which have not been extinguished, including rights-of-way running through the same.

Indian country also implies U.S. federal recognition of tribal bands as sovereign on their lands and capable of enjoying rights that are government to government. As one source notes, recognized tribes “possess absolute sovereignty [that] are completely independent of any other political power,” but also which is shared with other jurisdictions (local, state, and federal).

In Washington state, federal definitions of “Indian country” apply to state law, in addition to provisions acknowledging tribes non-taxable status in some commerce, such as the sale of tobacco products to tribal members on their reservation. In Seattle, there is still a band, the sparsely populated Duwamish, who have lost their sovereign status  and failed to win legal recognition in the city’s limits, on some of the choicest real-estate on the West Coast. Another nearby tribe, the Snoqualmie, regained their status in 1999 and promptly built a casino and became an economic and political player.

The decades-long fight over treaty-protected fishing and subsistence rights by the tribes culminated in the historic 1974 ruling in the landmark U.S. v. Washington case (the Boldt Decision) that unequivocally affirmed 19 federally-recognized tribes’ fishing rights to salmon and steelhead runs in western Washington. That decision gave the tribes rights to half of the salmon, steelhead, and shellfish harvests in the Puget Sound. It was a major game changer, and its impacts are still felt today–particularly legal squabbles if the decision should still be applied to land-use decisions impacting salmon habitat.

Yet, even as I gaze out on the beautiful Puget Sound, I am hard-pressed to think that I am on historic Indian lands, that I live in Indian country, where there are 29 federally-recognized tribes, in all corners of the state (see tribes and locations here).  But this is very much Indian country in a historic and cultural sense.

In fact, more than half of the state was outright taken by military force, illegal land seizures, and treaties (which also provided fishing and resource rights to tribal members) from the 1850s to the 1890s. Many stories of the exploitation of Native tribes come to mind, notably the hanging of Yakima warrrior Qualchan (also called Qualchew) by the reportedly violent Col. George Wright, in his campaign that defeated five tribes in Washington in the eastern half of what is now is the state. 

On Sept. 25, 1858, Qualchan had surrendered with a white flag and was hung within 15 minutes. That was followed with the hanging of six Palouse warriors the next day. Such incidents typified the period of conquest in my home state. Exploitation of tribal rights followed the signing of treaties. The Colville Tribes, for instance, had their lands stolen without their consent, setting off decades of legal battles that continued to the 1930s and ended in historic settlements returning hundreds of thousands of stolen acres of land.  Salmon and steelhead runs in the state were decimated by commercial fishing interests that harmed tribal groups in the upper and lower Columbia River basin. The runs were further extinguished by the dams built on the Columbia River. Only with the Boldt Decision in 1974 did the tide turn, but with numbers that no where near compared to the great runs of 100 years earlier.

Again, all of this is very academic and abstract to me and most Western Washington residents. Only when I traveled to the “World Famous Omak Stampede” rodeo and suicide race, with Native riders who charge down a 200 foot hill on horseback every second weekend of August, did I again realize I was truly in Indian country. Omak, in north central Washington, lies partially in the 1.4 million-acre Colville Reservation, in sparsely populated Okanogan and Ferry counties. The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation number less than 10,000. I found the area to be amazingly beautiful. It’s hot in the summer, and bitterly cold in the winter. During my visit to Omak for the Stampede, the mercury hit 100 F.

Outside of agriculture (on non-tribal lands), there is little industry in this part of the state, but there is gold mining, forestry, and a limited personal use salmon fishery for tribal members.  Forestry is the mainstay for generating tribal revenues. Gaming is also a big moneymaker at the tribes’ three casinos. If you can believe it, the casinos are attracting acts like blues legend Buddy Guy and rock has-beens like Foreigner and Joe Walsh in the next few weeks. I think it’s a bit sad that even stalwart Canadians are driving south from British Columbia to spend their loonies at the tribal gaming tables, but come they do.

Despite the flow of revenues, health issues remain a problem, as they do throughout Indian country. A June 9, 2012, story republished in the New York Daily News about Tribal Councilman Andy Joseph, Jr., profiles his efforts to address Native health funding issues. The story notes his tribal members and others nationally “are dying of cancer, diabetes, suicide and alcoholism. They are dying of many diseases at higher rates than the rest of the population. And instead of those rates getting better, they’re getting worse.” Joseph is the tribes’ representative to the Northwest Portland Area Health Board, which serves 41 tribes in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, and is that group’s delegate to the National Indian Health Board, which speaks for all 566 federally-recognized tribes in the country. The story notes that, nationally, tribal members die an average of five years earlier than the rest of the U.S. population and are six times more likely to die of tuberculosis or alcoholism, three times more likely to die of diabetes, and also twice as likely to be killed in an accident. What’s more, they are also twice as likely to die from homicide or suicide. Pretty grim data indeed.

According to Joseph, the major health issues associated with diet and nutrition have occurred as a result of conquest and cultural assimilation: “‘Joseph holds up a jar of canned salmon sitting on his desk. ‘Our people crave this,’ he said. ‘It was taken away from us when they put Grand Coulee Dam in.’ He reaches for a string of dried camas root. ‘It’s what our bodies were raised with for thousands of years. Now, we have Safeway and Albertsons and Walmart.'”

In Omak, I got a taste of Native pride during the Omak Stampede Parade, which mainly featured local businesses, rodeo princesses, groups like firefighters, Republican office holders or candidates, and less than half a dozen Indian floats. (I saw no Latino groups in the parade, despite their large presence picking fruit and in agriculture–they “officially” number about 15 percent of Omak’s residents.)

A Native float at the Omak Stampede parade.

Some of the many teepees at the Native encampment at the Stampede.

The Stampede features a tribal encampment with teepees and a performance area where tribal members perform traditional dances and song in gorgeous costumes.  It reminded me a lot of Alaska, particularly the many gatherings I saw there, including the largest conference called the Alaska Federation of Natives Annual Convention. Yup, I was definitely in Indian country.

My only real, true regret was that I missed the Suicide Race, which features some of the state’s finest Native horseman who charge down the steep hill and swim across the Okanogan River on their way to the finish inside the Omak Stampede stadium. You can watch it on YouTube, and note some times, yes, horses have died in this race.

I would eat salmon every day if I could afford it

To celebrate the completion of my public health studies at the University of Washington School of Public Health, I celebrated on June 2, the way I always do at the end of long journeys or the start of new chapters—I had a salmon barbecue with good friends. This time I added Alaskan ling cod to the menu.

Copper River sockeye and Alaska ling cod — oh yeah, very very good!

I love salmon. The fish I bought, Copper River sockeye, was very fresh, and the ling cod was amazingly delicious (have to eat more of this). In the past, I have always marked major milestones of my life with salmon. This includes moving, changing my name, celebrations with friends, and other good reasons to cheer. My last night in Alaska, in August 2010, also involved salmon. Times I have left Seattle for journeys abroad have included salmon. In many ways I am following historic traditions of the tribes of coastal British Columbia and their potlatch celebrations.

Salmon has long held a special place in the traditions of West Coast Native peoples, from the Salish all the way up to the Alaska among nearly all Native groups in the Great Land (what Alaskans call their home state). Salmon provided food to support both the health and culture of many tribal bands.

Dipnet caught Kenai River sockeye, July 2010.

Rich in vitamins A and D and omega-3 fatty acids, which reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, wild salmon is extremely healthy food. Its intake has traditionally been much higher among many Natives because of their subsistence lifestyle. In Alaska, the Yup’ik people, of the Yukon-Kuskokwin region (including the Yukon River), often eat 20 times more fish oil than other people, and they appear to be protected from ill health effects of junk food and obesity with such a diet. However, epidemiologists still assess risk with salmon intake because of potential mercury contamination.

In Alaska, epidemiologists recommend people eat fish at least twice a week, and they say wild Alaska salmon of any species can be eaten in unlimited amounts by women and children, but other species should be eaten less, because of mercury and other toxic contaminants that could be found in fish.

As a former Alaskan, I was spoiled by an abundance of fresh fish.

Alaskan residents are still allowed to dipnet and catch fish as subsistence users in the Kenai River and other areas depending on the runs. During my years there, I would dipnet on the Kenai River for sockeye.

Dipnetting on the Kenai River, 2008.

Rudy Owens and fresh caught Kenai River sockeye, 2010.

The fish I caught would last me through the spring. Here in Seattle, I spent $18 a pound for Copper River salmon. As a just graduated MPH student, that is beyond my budget. My classmate and I once joked when a nutrition professor asked if students ate fish twice a week. Maybe the professor forgot to check what the tuition price was as the University of Washington. Lentils and rice still keep me going. I forever dream of salmon now.