Signs 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.