I have to say, I am completely dumbfounded by the number of people who have read and shared my blog post from the other day. I haven’t exactly gone viral like Rebecca Black (you’re welcome for getting that song stuck in your head again), but I’ve gone as viral as I probably ever will. When someone I don’t even know from Monterrey, Mexico responds to, essentially, my adult-sized temper tantrum on paper, it makes me stand back in awe of the power (both positive and negative) of the Internet. Thank you all for your support, comments and time in reading my ramblings.
Having said that, I guess I’m not done. Yesterday afternoon, I walked into a colleague’s classroom and as she took my hands in hers she said, “you could be our voice.” While this seemed a bit like a scene from a cheesy after-school special, I did take what she said to heart. After hearing the responses of educators and even those outside of that world alike, I am even more inspired to talk openly about these issues. It seems that there are countless misunderstandings on both sides that cause separation between the two pieces of the puzzle that may possibly provide the only hope of creating change. Educators and the community need to work together, not alienate each other.
One of the first things that I noticed about this issue is that everyone, including teachers, begin to play the blame game. At the surface level, this conflict appears to be between the union (who represent teachers) and the board (who represent the district). In this scenario, you are forced to take sides and what often happens is, if you aren’t a teacher or if you’ve had a negative experience in education, you side with the board and if you are a teacher or if you resonate with teachers, you take the side of the union. Yet if you really stand back and look at these two groups, the large majority of each party are not embodied in the demonization that is placed on them.
One misunderstanding that exists in the problem of money in schools is that the districts or board actually have little control over the amount of money that is spent on education. The trickle down effect of the economic recession has hit education where the sun doesn’t shine, creating a deficit of $25.4 million over the last four years in my district alone. When the majority of the school’s budget (70% in Oregon City) goes towards teaching and student resources, these are the areas that take the biggest cut. This makes complete sense, however, until I had heard this explanation this year, I always thought that those creating the budget had more control over how much money was available and where the cuts had to go. The reason we have a budget crisis is not because there are evil school board members who like to watch teachers suffer.
In addition to the problem of simply having a whole lot less money, there are also complications that arise from the way budgets must be spent. From the outside looking in, the public often assumes that educators are over-spending and over-paid and over-benefited. At the beginning of this year, my brother (who lives in Michigan) told me about his frustrations with the excuses from teachers regarding budget cuts. As he sat in his daughter’s classroom at conferences, he found it contradictory to hear “money is tight” while the teacher was installing a new sound system in her classroom. This same situation occurred with a parent last year that had lived and taught overseas where supplies and technology were very limited. She wondered why teachers always complained about the budget crisis when she clearly saw Smartboards in every classroom and paper rooms stacked to the ceiling with paper.
I had to explain to both of these concerned parents that there isn’t just one big pool of money that everything gets paid out of like in a household. There are governmentally appointed pots of money that are bound by law to be used in specific ways. This is much different than a household budget where, if money is tight, you don’t go out to eat or go to the movies anymore. You can cut back in any area of excess and those cutbacks can then help with the necessities of your financial life. In education, however, you can’t just say “let’s not put any money into technology this year and use that money to restore student contact days” because it’s illegal. And if you don’t use that money by the end of the year, that money goes bye-bye.
I’m learning more and more everyday that this crisis is caused by the deep cracks in our funding system. As I chatted yesterday with my colleague, we began to wonder what the point of arguing is if the money isn’t there and there isn’t much we can change at this point. Causing us to realize how ineffective small strikes among a scant number of districts may be in a problem way bigger than anything a school board or district can fix. Yet, as we tossed around different possibilities of solutions we entertained a big and scary thought. In order to be “heard” by the people who need to hear it, small districts can’t do it alone. All educators would have to stand up with the districts that have bravely entered that realm. Because we aren’t fighting “the board” and “the administrators” we are fighting a deeply rooted systemic problem of the state and government.
Complaining about the problem in the confines of the teacher’s lounge is not enough. We need to speak up (no more indoor voices…) and be transparent about what is really happening. And we need to do this without fear of backlash. It’s also clear to me that this can’t be fought alone. Teachers, parents, students, administrators, individuals in the private sector and those in the public (and everyone else that I’m sure I’ve forgotten to mention) need to stop placing blame and start listening to each other. This conversation needs to come from a place of respect and an understanding that every person has a vested interest in this thing called education whether they are in it or not. Once we stop fighting with each other, we just might discover our common ground. Only then will our voices be loud enough to be heard by someone who can actually do something about it.
© 2012 D. Willson