EDUCATION POLITICS - The first time I set foot in my local district school my eldest was eleven years old. I am ashamed to say that I dismissed any notion of attendance there without ever once visiting it. WHY? I believe in democracy, public education and community implicitly. Why would it come to pass that a parent might opt never even to look at their local neighborhood school before seeking enrollment elsewhere?
Here is a description of one parent’s emotional tugs and pulls through this process. She is masterful at peeling back the layers of our presumptions.
In searching my own opinions and actions through the years, I recognize a lot of latent racism and fear. But it must also be acknowledged that LAUSD schools present a face to the community that is simply hammered. When I arrived in this city 19 long years ago, before ever any child relied on me for their education, I remember well observing ghastly, grim institutions not even recognizable as a public school. “Too awful”, I thought. “No one would ever relegate their kids to this”. The schools appeared as barren expanses of empty, broken pavement, with dingy buildings and dilapidation all around. And as it turns out, “no one” did. Not only did no one of my class, my color, my neighborhood at that time, send their child to one of these “scary” institutions, but “no one” ever even considered doing so to be a viable option.
And a completely non-trivial if superficial part of the reason is simply the appearance of these schools – then and now, still. As it happens, unfamiliarity and ugliness conspire in the impression that setting foot on such a property is scary. The notion of relegating one’s precious, vulnerable child to this hopeless-looking prison was simply unthinkable. I hated the sight of those schools from the minus-get-go. Acres of chicken wire and blacktop comprised a Dante-esque landscape of hopelessness incarnate. It was a visceral reaction that I can still call forth.
As it is still called forth today, not daily as before but whenever I pass one of our public schools in a different neighborhood, one where familiarity has not dulled the horror of ugly.
That is to say, the emotional shock of these aesthetics is little changed. Quite possibly it is worse today than formerly. The chicken wire that encased the perimeter has infiltrated the inner reaches of these schools in a network of warrened partitions separating co-located schools and communities from one another.
In fairness, the physical grounds of a few schools have improved with time, but these are generally located within wealthy communities. While schools have been unleashed somewhat in order to raise local funds specifically for their own school budgets, it is only those local to wealth that might successfully siphon significant monies. Disposable income is the prerogative of already-wealthy communities.
Thus has crept back into our lives the “separate but equal” doctrine that had been dispelled following repeal of the Jim Crow laws during the 1950s. In just the same way the Supreme Court recently ruled questionably that modern concern regarding the former practice of select jurisdictions’ voter restrictions is no longer valid, our modern educational practices have evolved from those former racist doctrines codifying inequality and class segregation. But the deprivation of public funds from our public schools that started a quarter century ago with Proposition 13, has propelled implicitly precisely that “separate but equal” doctrine which the Supreme Court formerly declared must be expelled explicitly. Legislative mandates to curtail educational inequity have been effectively undermined by fiscal starvation.
There is a lesson to be learned from the raw, disturbing impression of every single crumbling public school that we pass. These tell us that we Californians do not care enough about our society, or its young, under-privileged members, to fund a compelling public school system for one and all. We believe by and large, that our children are our most precious commodity. And we spend accordingly, devoting untold hours to furtherance of our own kin. But we do not extend that benefit to the class of children within our society as a whole. We will spend for our own; we refuse to spend for the community.
The self-sealing logic is brutal. Those schools that ought properly to house our children have been allowed to deteriorate to such an extent that to some, it feels almost a dereliction of parenting duty to consider sending a child into one of them. And while that appearance of decrepitude rules within our communities, the experience of the virtue within its crumbling walls — awareness of that diamond in the rough — grows ever less likely to be experienced precisely because of the physical, superficial deterioration.
I did not know the virtues of my local public district school, and I never looked for them because I was so horrified by what I saw on the outside. More importantly, I did not think about how my actions betrayed my political values. I did not realize that my personal choices molded the whole of society around me, incrementally but surely and steadily.
If we do not send our children to public school, we do not support a democracy of equality for one and all. If we tacitly support our own at the expense of others, we are degrading the meaning of democracy.
The bottom line is this: we are not funding a barely adequate, much less fully functional public school system. And when we pull our children elsewhere and fund that private institution they attend instead, we are choosing to abandon the community for our own private personal gain. This is anti-democratic and it is sad. It never was my intention nor anyone of my acquaintance’s. And yet, we contribute to this reality all the same, intentions notwithstanding.
To support a democracy with equal opportunity for all, we must support the schools that provide this opportunity. We must fund these schools like we used to do. All children – each and every single one of them – deserves a community rich in experiences to offer our newly-minted learners: art, drama, mechanical arts, music, athletics, laboratories, libraries, clubs, tutoring, health care. It is incumbent upon every single adult in our society to sustain these necessities for every single juvenile among us. If we do not provide this world for our young, how will they ever grow to sustain an egalitarian world when they are in the majority?
We have to stop this madness, decrying one thing and acting to undermine its solution simultaneously. If you’re not prepared to declare the notion of public education extravagant, then you must contribute to the system meaningfully. That means sending your children, and more of your tax dollars — both — into that system.
It means reversing the blight of our schools so that people with options might choose consciously to attend those schools. They should not be a place of last resort; they should be a place of opportunity for all. Really all. Not just the under-class but the ruling class as well. We must support our schools commensurate with a democratic belief in schooling.
(Sara Roos is a politically active resident of Mar Vista, a biostatistician, the parent of two teenaged LAUSD students and a CityWatch contributor, who blogs at redqueeninla.k12newsnetwork.com)
Vol 11 Issue 58
Pub: July 19, 2013