Friday, October 31, 2008

Why I Vote the Way I Do--Part 4

Doxy's Note: Another long one. Sigh....

(For those of you joining the party late, here's the Prologue, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.)

Up until now, I have focused on macro reasons about why I vote the way I do. This post is more specific--but it is one that speaks to my heart---and I think it is critical to our future as a nation.

I hope to have at least one more post before Election Day is over, but we'll see. There are many other issues that affect my vote
--and I may keep talking about this even after the election. I have found that thinking deeply about the reasons I vote the way I do is a very useful exercise...I encourage all of you to try it.

************************************
I am passionate about education.
I’ve done a lot of things in my life—including teaching in both private and public institutions of higher education. But probably the most important and eye-opening thing I ever did was to volunteer in my neighborhood school before I even had children.

My ex and I bought our first house in a revitalizing urban area in Nashville in the mid-1990s. When we first lived there, we could sit in the back yard and watch our neighbors doing drug deals in the street. A week after we brought our infant son home from the hospital, an angry resident at the “boarding house” (i.e., rooms for rent by the week) across the street set off a pipe bomb in the front yard because he was angry with his landlord.

(That same boarding house was briefly home to mass murderer Paul Reid—who, before he was arrested, tried, and convicted for killing seven people and sentenced to death—occasionally stopped and spoke kindly to my grandmother as she rocked the Baby Emperor on our front porch swing.)

All of that aside, the neighborhood was a wonderful community of people who cared deeply about the area and worked hard to improve it. I served on the neighborhood association board, and my interest was in schools—I had worked as an education analyst for the Tennessee General Assembly for several years, and had a solid knowledge base on education policy, funding, and data. I knew that the middle school in my neighborhood was failing—in large measure because 98% of the kids in it were in the free- or reduced-price meal (FRM) program. (There are both free- or reduced-price breakfast and lunch programs—I’ll use the one acronym to include them both.)

If you don’t know about it, the FRM program is open to kids living at 130%-185% of the Federal poverty line, which in 2008-2009 is $21,200/year for a family of four (in 1996-97, it was probably under $16K/year). For many children, the meals they get at school are by far the most nutritious food they will receive in a day. For some children, they are the ONLY meals they will get.

(Think about what this means to kids over the weekend and on holidays and summer breaks…and if you are moved by the hunger they face, donate to the Backpack Buddies program at the Interfaith Food Shuttle or to Feeding America in your own home town.)

FRM percentage is THE indicator to look for if children in a school are not doing well—it is an almost-perfect marker for underperforming students. Schools with more than 50% of their students on FRMs are almost guaranteed to have a significant percentage (if not an outright majority) of kids who don’t perform to standards set by either their local school boards or the Federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB)

Most of those kids are Black or Latino. I point this out because race and class have been conflated in the public’s mind. People talk about minority kids who don’t do well in school—and it’s true that minority kids are hugely at risk for academic failure—but they are at risk because they are disproportionately poor, not because of the color of their skin.

Why do I tell you all this stuff? Because my experience with Lockeland Middle School—and with the racism and poverty that led to its poor performance—has shaped my politics and the way I vote in profound ways.

(Lockeland was converted into a magnet elementary school sometime around 2000. There is no one left on the faculty who was there when I volunteered.)

The principal and staff at Lockeland were, quite frankly, incredulous when I showed up on their doorstep. I was White, upper-middle class (in education, if not in income), and hugely pregnant with the Emperor. I had no child in their school—and wouldn’t have one in any Nashville Public School for at least 6 years. They weren’t sure what to do with me at first.

But they quickly got over their surprise (and probably suspicion) and put me to work. I helped them re-start a moribund Parent-Teacher Association. I helped them apply for a grant from the state legislature to repair a room in the school that had been destroyed by arson and to replace the equipment in it—the first grant I ever wrote and got funded. I sold cookies and cupcakes at Back-to-School night to raise money for supplies and books.

And I listened in shock as I heard some teachers talk openly and disparagingly about their students’ abilities and their futures. Watched the “soft bigotry of low expectations” (about the ONLY thing—other than the need to fund HIV/AIDS programs worldwide—on which George W. Bush and I have ever agreed) in action. Watched the principal and other staff work their asses off to try and overcome the societal influences and inequalities that stacked the deck against these CHILDREN—and fail, so often.

I was radicalized by my experience in that school.

I learned that segregating poor children into their own schools was a recipe for academic failure—and a prescription for lifelong poverty. I learned that parents who are too overwhelmed with trying to keep a roof over their children’s heads and food in their bellies don’t have the energy to fight for better schools for their kids—or even to come to PTA meetings. I learned that parents who were poorly educated themselves too often do not appreciate how important education is to their children’s futures—and thus do not encourage academic achievement at home. I learned that parents whose native language is not English are doubly disadvantaged. I learned that not all teachers have their students' best interests at heart.

Mostly, I learned that when there is no community responsibility for educating children, only White, middle- and upper-middle class children get the education they need.

Like many Southern cities, Nashville did not respond positively to desegregation. The movers and shakers in Nashville removed their children from public schools and built their own network of educational enclaves that were “safe” from an influx of poor, mostly Black, children. Once that happened, there was no one left in the Halls of Power to push for better schools—with predictable results.

I vote for progressive politicians and policies because I am convinced of the need to have schools that are integrated—both racially and economically. I have seen the results of not doing so, and they are ugly. In fact, I will go so far as to say that educational segregation is a metastatic cancer at the heart of our democracy.

I am also convinced of the need for accountability for educational results--and the need for us to be accountable for supporting public schools adequately. NCLB was originally supported by a wide coalition of education advocacy groups—in large measure because it required school districts to be transparent about their achievements with different racial/ethnic groups and students living in poverty.

Before NCLB, school districts had been able to hide how badly they were doing with their poor and minority students by offering aggregate achievement statistics. If a district had a predominantly White, middle-class student body, its generally higher test scores tended to mask academic failures among struggling kids—which allowed districts to continue ignoring those children with special educational needs caused by racism and/or poverty. NCLB blew that shameful closet door off the hinges.

Where NCLB fell apart was in mandating student achievement without providing the resources necessary to make it happen—and in treating schools like factories that can produce widgets to spec.

Children, in case anyone hasn’t noticed, are not widgets. Factories that make widgets can cull and destroy widgets that aren’t up to spec. Humans shouldn’t be able to do that to one another, but we do. We are effectively treating poor kids as if they are widgets—we are destroying their hopes for the future and casting them on the economic garbage heap when we do not support public education adequately.

You can talk all you want about how it takes more than just money to educate children, and you can also talk all you want about “throwing good money after bad”—but the truth is that education is ENORMOUSLY expensive and in order to fix what is wrong in our public schools it will take community will, collective responsibility for outcomes, and lots of money.

For most school districts, approximately 80% percent of their annual budget goes for teacher salaries and benefits. When you talk about “throwing money at education,” you are talking about whether you are going to pay teachers decently—and about how many children are going to be in a given classroom.

You want smaller class sizes, and better-educated, more experienced teachers? Open your wallet.

Most school district budgets are based on property taxes—which is great if you live in an area where there is a lot of valuable property than can be taxed. If you live in a poverty-stricken or rural area, or an area with lots of untaxable property (e.g., military bases, businesses that have been given tax breaks to come to, or remain in, an area), you may be SOL.

Of course, lots of people believe that they shouldn’t have to pay higher property taxes for schools. If you send your kids to private school (as my family did me), or you don’t have children (or grandchildren) in the public schools, you may think it’s not your responsibility to fund education for other people’s children.

I will tell you, loudly and unequivocally, that you are as wrong as it is possible to be wrong.

(I will also say that I think property taxes are a piss-poor way to fund schools and yet another guarantee that the “haves” will continue to have. Yet another post….)

Our future as a nation depends on a well-educated citizenry. And by “well-educated,” I do NOT mean kids who can fill in a bubble on a standardized test. I mean citizens who can think and reason and ask questions. I mean citizens who understand their responsibilities qua citizens—and who do not shirk their responsibilities to educate themselves about issues, vote, communicate with their elected officials, serve on juries, pay taxes, and be actively involved in the common life of their communities.

Public schools are the only way to get that educated citizenry. They are open to all—regardless of race, color, creed, or income. Public schools are our best hope of leveling the playing field and ensuring that all Americans know the things they need to know to be good citizens—and productive workers. If you want a stable society, supporting public schools should be at the top of your list of things to do.

And that’s another reason I vote progressive. Because for at least the last 25 years (and really more like 40, since desegregation), there has been a concerted effort by conservatives to undermine public schools and the public’s confidence in them. There is a long and painful history of racism and classism in that story—and the end result has been to ensure that millions of American children have received substandard educations.

To me, this undermines democracy and endangers the future of our nation. So I vote for those who support public education.

(And I ALWAYS support bond referenda for schools. Just in case you were wondering…)