Of course government can and should help all children

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COMMENTARY: It’s graduation season. New Mexicans of all ethnicities and incomes are celebrating high school diplomas and college degrees. Meanwhile, the state is arguing in a lawsuit over education funding that it isn’t responsible for providing greater help to children who face barriers to learning – even though there’s a substantial need for such help.

Heath Haussamen

Heath Haussamen

The state’s logic is a significant contributing factor to New Mexico’s problems. It’s a disappointing confirmation of why we’re failing.

Two nonprofits representing several school districts argue the state is failing to provide equal opportunities for low-income, English language learning and Native American students in violation of the N.M. Constitution. I’ll let a court decide the merits of the lawsuit. It’s the statement from a lawyer representing the state, Stephen Hamilton, that caught my attention.

“The simple fact is that all a school system can do is provide students the opportunity to learn,” Hamilton was quoted by the Santa Fe Reporter as saying. Paraphrasing Hamilton, the newspaper said he “added that students who are minorities, English language learners, and economically disadvantaged were not as receptive to education as others, and for this reason had lower rates of proficiency across the country.”

That’s absurd. It’s as if the state doesn’t recognize that government already provides additional help for children who come to school less prepared to learn. Free meals at school are one example. Special education is another.

But clearly what we’re doing isn’t enough, or isn’t effective. Students of certain ethnicities and economic statuses struggle to succeed more than others. Language and cultural barriers make school challenging for some.

This isn’t a column arguing that government must fix society’s problems. I don’t engage in the liberal/conservative debate between societal and personal responsibility because the debate is crap. It takes an individual, a family, a community, and government for people and society to succeed.

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I’ve long believed, as liberal and conservative policy changes fell flat, that our problems run deeper than partisan ideology can address. Here’s a core problem: The state argues all it can do is make a basic learning environment available; it’s up to children and parents to decide what to do with it.

Wrong.

Some kids need more or different help than others. Many face challenges at home that affect their ability to focus in school. Some struggle with English. Many Native Americans come from cultures that are so different – not better or worse, just different – that American education feels foreign. Government must meet them partway across that cultural commute.

We need the courage to acknowledge our differences and challenges, and work through them. Otherwise we’re choosing to be last in the rankings and export many of our successful kids to other states.

I’m raising my daughter here. She’s fortunate to have food and shelter, speak and write English, and have parents who take an active role in her life and education.

She’s also half brown. There’s nothing inherently flawed about people of any ethnicity, even though statistically some groups face greater challenges. For example, in addition to the cultural gap, many Native Americans face generational trauma and poverty imposed by others.

In spite of those things, all children can thrive – if given the help they need. I’d like to see us choose to help.

Government can’t make children succeed. But if we don’t fundamentally believe government can help people live healthier, happier, freer lives, regardless of where we start as learners, why have government at all?

Heath Haussamen is NMPolitics.net’s editor and publisher. Agree with his opinion? Disagree? We welcome your views. Learn about submitting your own commentary here.

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