Voting ‘Yes’ for Schools, But ‘No’ to Giving My Time

800px-MontgomerySchoolbusSigns have sprouted all over my town: Vote Yes For Schools. On lawns, parking strips, roadsides, and here in my leafy suburb, in the “good” district, where parents expect the best from their kids and for their kids. Where we moved for the schools.

Of course, I’ll vote yes. But I can’t summon the energy, the righteous anger and urgency at just how bad it will be that these school levy votes have given me in the past. Someone else can do it this time.

Our kids are older now, thirteen and fifteen. I have been with them through every step of shrinking budgets since kindergarten. We’ve watched the classes grow and the opportunities shrink, the electives disappear, and the teachers bravely soldier on. We supplement our kids’ educations with activities and lessons outside school that we pay for. We’ve raised money and raised awareness, and every year, when we thought it couldn’t get any worse, it did.

This year though, it’s gone from mediocre to holy crap! Hundreds of teachers, five-day school weeks, sports, and specialists all met the budget axe in one summer of recession-induced financial crisis. The librarians disappeared, replaced by low-paid aides. High school class sizes ballooned to over fifty. Yes, fifty. The kids can’t even fit in the rooms. Teachers use microphones. My son’s beloved science teacher who taught them to build bridges and dissect frogs lost her job. A high school teacher friend admitted that with fifty students in each class, at halfway through the year he still didn’t know all their names. Teachers I know and respect have wooden smiles and thousand-yard stares of utter exhaustion.

At my daughter’s middle school, kids sit on the floor, on tables, and use clipboards for desks because there aren’t enough chairs. Teachers struggle through subjects they haven’t taught in years or ever, filling in for laid-off colleagues.

Facebook and newspaper editorials have turned into giant, district-wide shouting matches. It’s for the children! Government needs to live within its means! Teachers are hardworking! I’m taxed out of my house! Music is being cut! It’s the teachers unions! All noise and no light, all passion and no money, all words and no solutions.

In past elections, I’ve phoned, gone door-to-door, worn buttons, and handed out fliers. But not this year.

This year, my son floundered, and we put him in private school. My brilliant, difficult-to-educate son, with an amazing IQ and dyslexia. I know he takes lots of extra work for teachers. He always has. I’ve spent countless hours since his kindergarten year trying to bend the system to fit my son and bend him to fit the system. I attended meetings, I dug up homework, I bothered people, I grounded him, I pled, I phoned, and I emailed. We hired a tutor. He studies through the summers. But this year, his freshman year, he failed two classes and came close to failing all the rest. He tried and they tried. Most of his teachers genuinely cared and did the best they could, but they couldn’t invent extra hours in the day or put half the kids in suspended animation so the teachers could answer my son’s questions.

As a family, we said enough. We found an expensive private school we can’t afford, just for kids with dyslexia and other learning disabilities—some of which my state won’t even call by name. If they named them, they’d have to teach for them, and they can’t. They don’t have the money.

So my energy this year went to helping him dig out of the volcano of schoolwork that erupts when a learning-disabled kid meets high school expectations without enough teachers. My energy went to homeschooling in all his subjects, after a full day at school for him and work for me. My energy went to applications, private testing, financial aid, and raiding every penny of savings for tuition. My energy went to meetings with principals, teachers, special education case managers and even an education lawyer. My energy went to a bewildered teenager who left all his friends behind in the middle of the year. My energy went to volunteering at a fundraising auction at a private school I hadn’t even heard of a year ago.

I believe in public education to the bottom of my soul. Stay in your neighborhood. Work to make your school better. Raise the boats for everyone. I’ve lived it. I’ve led reading groups, sold wrapping paper, sent checks, evaluated science fair projects, sold junk at rummage sales, and written a newsletter. But it wasn’t enough. I believe in my son’s potential more than I believe in my state’s will to educate its children. These children. Now. Not next year, not in the next legislative session, not after the next election. Now.

My son can’t wait for funding to get better. Maybe someday, when he’s 25, they’ll finally figure out how to fund education properly, but he won’t get to do high school over again. We hope he’ll be a happy and productive young adult then, on his own, working, supporting himself, using that amazing brain of his to design cars or bridges or microchips.

Of course, I voted yes. My daughter still attends school in this district, and we’ll help her do the best she can. All my neighbors’ children attend school here.

They can have my vote. But they can’t have my energy anymore, and they can’t have my heart. Because they couldn’t teach my son.

(UPDATE: Our school levy was approved).

Contributor Tina Ricks is a freelance writer and editor living in suburban Portland, Oregon with her husband, two teenagers, a labrador mutt, a boa constrictor, and a goldfish. She has published in The Oregonian and blogs on Open Salon where she writes about kids, family, and travel. She is a volunteer with her daughter’s community orchestra, her children’s schools, and just about any other kid-related organization that comes along. She is a proud owner of too many books, crappy furniture, and a passport with lots of stamps.

Image via Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Census Bureau

  • jen

    Yes. Amen. This. Whatever the right expression is… this is what I haven’t been able to put into words about the choices we made for our kids. My husband and I had a great discussion about public vs. private when our kids were little. He had 13 years of Catholic School, I was public all the way. Frankly, we agreed that I was better educated, more well rounded, what have you, so that is where we put our efforts.

    But public school today IS NOT THE SAME as the 70s and 80s when I was there. nearly every year, there have been massive cuts. They are beyond the point of “cutting the fat” – the lights are barely on, the teachers are exhausted and the kids suffer.

    My oldest has dyscalcula and we had nearly every teacher appear at her 504 meeting to brainstorm ways to support her. (the history teacher that couldn’t attend sent a beautiful letter about how hard she works and how much he admires her ability to contribute insights to the class discussion). They have been wonderful and I wish I could something, anything to make life better for them.

    Thank you for putting this into the words I couldn’t find.


  • Amy McVay Abbott

    Excellent article, Tina.

  • Tina

    Thanks Amy.

    Jen, you’re singing my song.

  • Joan Haskins

    Terrific article, Tina!

  • AMEN! You nailed this. I can see myself throughout 90% of this article. Our youngest graduates from high school next week. Our oldest did not have any special needs, our youngest has had an IEP all through school. We did the private tutor thing and I have sat next to him helping him with his homework for 13 years! And I mean right next to him, not in the same building. I have been the school supporting Mom for the past 17 years- I am exhausted! Thank you for putting this out there.

    • Tina

      Thanks for reading Sara, it’s nice to know there are others with me on this road.

  • I teach in a public charter online school in Wisconsin. Our numbers grow as more parents see the damage of budget cuts and the negative effect on students in brick and mortar schools. Succeeding in our school, however, takes energy on the part of the parent as well as the student. I love my job, but I recognize not every family has the time and energy it takes to handle this kind of structure.

    • Tina

      Daisy, I know that online school works for some kids. I realized I’d reached my limit of homeschooling this year though. I’m not an educator, and I’m especially not a specialist in dyslexia, and all the extra time we could summon up at home wasn’t enough. It was demoralizing for everyone when it seemed we were doing every bit of schoolwork again at home because time at school in such large classes just wasn’t effective. The private school we found is great, it makes me feel like a parent again and not a combination homeschooler and drill sergeant. It’s taken a lot of stress off our family.

  • Amen! I’m exhausted just READING this letter. What you must be going through. Sometimes, despite everyone’s best efforts, public school doesn’t work the way it should. We’re going through a rough patch, no doubt, educationally. I believe in you and your kids, and am rooting for all of you!!!

  • Beverly Uhlmer

    I have a number of friends who are teachers and, although spending cuts are a big issue, we must look deeper to understand what is happening in our schools. In Houston we must make room for every child who enters the door. This include children of people who are here illegally (thousands of them in Houston!) and speak no English, children from broken homes, single parent-homes, grandparent homes… These problems rarely existed when I was in school in the 50’s. We understood that women should marry before having children and families should stay together unless there was physical abuse. People who did not enter the country legally were usually sent back to their home countries. Now we have become so lax in our ideas about strong families and strong national security that our schools are bearing the brunt. I know these problems will take generations to solve but we can’t solve our problems if we refuse to acknowledge them.

  • Tina

    I think there have always been social problems in schools. I remember them in my schools from the 70s and 80s–girls who got pregnant, kids from difficult homes, and kids with no money. Somehow, and I don’t know enough about financing to know how, they managed to educate us without reeling from crisis to crisis. When I look at my yearbooks from junior high and high school (same state, different town), we had all kinds of electives, languages, sports, and activities that have met the axe 25 years later for my kids. We certainly didn’t have classes of 50. Whatever the reason, I realized we couldn’t wait any more for my state to figure things out.

  • Beverly Uhlmer

    Tina, there have always been social problems but they were not as rampant as today in our permissive, “feel good” society. I failed to make the point that, because of the serious breakdown of the family, so much money is spent trying to clean up the messes that there is less money to educate the children. Children from single-parent homes are much more likely to live in poverty and have a variety of psychological problems. Instead of supporting marriage our society encourages women to have children out of wedlock by giving them lots of freebies. Men are barred from the homes, even if they wish to be involved in the lives of their own children, because the welfare system traps women into ongoing poverty and singleness.
    I worked at a resale shop for ten years and women came in regularly with a string of little ones, each fathered by a different man. This instability leads to many issues for the children and the schools and the government try to pick up the pieces. The single most common factor among men in prison is the absence of a stable father figure in the home. Our nation is in crisis and we cannot solve our problems if we fail to recognize the source.

    • Tina

      Bev, I guess the point I got to emotionally and intellectually is that it doesn’t matter any more for me what the reasons are for why my school district is floundering, and why my state’s tax structure is messed up, and why school districts across my state are always reeling from one crisis to the next.

      These are big, ugly, systemic problems that I don’t have time to solve because my kid is in high school now, today, this year. The truth is that everyone’s kid is in some grade now, today, this year, and those kids won’t get to go back and do third grade, or seventh grade, or tenth grade over again after my state gets itself figured out. For my family, and for my son, it was time to jump out and let some other minds figure this one out. It feels very odd to have abandoned the public system, but it’s what we needed to do.

  • Beverly Uhlmer

    Tina, I totally understand. Sometimes it is right to just move on. We can’t save the whole world.

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