09/04/2012 04:53 pm ET Updated Nov 04, 2012

Who's Going to Pay for It?

I'm a native Kansas Citian, but I just took at job in Iowa, and moved my entire life five and a half hours away from home. After patiently waiting a month, I received my first paycheck, which ironically came while I was home visiting friends and family for one of my best friend's wedding, and the receipt from the direct deposit cleared my account at 8:07 a.m. on Saturday, while I was having a very interesting breakfast discussion.

An older man had stopped by our table and was asking us about why we were dressed up, and began to ask us if we were in school, and where we worked. When my friend Nick, who begins his first year teaching in a Title I school in Detroit this week, said he was a first-year teacher, the man told him that 'the only way to save kids from inner city schools is to take the kids from their homes and place them in places away from the city with families with better values.' As Nick's friend, I was disgusted by how callous of a statement that seemed to me. He had essentially told Nick that he couldn't make a difference to the students he would soon be working with. But, I think the underlying ideas that relate to educational reform and the everyday citizen's view of our educational system disturbed me more.

My passion as an educator has everything to do with a desire to make upward mobility a reality in America. To me, education is my form of public service. When this man turned to me and asked what I was doing in Iowa, and what research interests I had, I told him that I cared deeply about student retention, and I wanted to be part of the solution at universities in order to help students find success in and outside the classroom. He let out a quick laugh, and this is the comment that followed:

PJ, you can't save everyone. You should be focusing on the best students. A lot of the kids you're talking about don't stand a chance. Besides, who's going to pay for programs to help them? Who's going to pay for it?

I wish I could say the answer was that our fine teachers were 'paying for it.' Every day that teachers and educators step into the classroom in our public school system, they're making an investment in America's future, by making an investment in students. Everyday that a teacher provides tutoring, counseling, or after school activities, they pay for it, because it's one more step to keeping students engaged with the school, and building a relationship that helps breed success.

I wish I could say the answer was that our taxpayers were 'paying for it.' Funding for education is under attack throughout in the name of fiscal restraint, and campaigns in my home state of Missouri and around the country are being waged to cut education spending further, whether by a Congressman who compares federal student loans to Stage 3 Cancer, or activists who think school districts are frivolous with the money being spent per student. I can't bring myself to say, with pride, that tax payers are 'paying for it.'

I think the only appropriate answer to this man's question is that America and the American student are paying for it. Educators are investing their time and effort in the education system that admittedly needs reform, but is going to suffer without support from our state governments, our taxpayers, and the everyday citizen that believes in America. We are going to 'pay for it,' when we realize that we should have 'paid for it' in the first place. While other countries invest heavily in their education systems, we are mortgaging our future by cutting education, and undercutting the people who are passionate about making a difference.

And, it's not all about money. It never has been. Money isn't why my friend and I got into education. Money isn't why teachers put in long hours to support students. If people get into education for the dollars and cents, it doesn't add up. But, there is something really special about watching a student be the first in their family to graduate with a degree, and that's more return on investment than any of us educators could ask for as payment.

So, while that first paycheck on Saturday was pretty sweet, so are the long hours my fellow educators and I are going to put in over the course of our careers trying to make a difference for our students, states, country, and world. And, if you don't think your money should be going to our school systems as payment, at the very least have the decency to pay some respect.