(originally posted at gradmommy)
“If this is not class warfare, I don’t know what is.” – The Seeker
“Here we go again.” – The Thinker
These are the words of friends of mine as they express shock over the second case in only a matter of months in which a black mother has made national headlines for pursuing a better education for her children than they otherwise would have received.
In the most recent case, Tonya McDowell, a black mother who lived sometimes in a homeless shelter, sometimes on a friend’s couch, used her babysitter’s address, where she did not live, to enroll her children in a Connecticut school. When the school found out, they had McDowell arrested, and charged with stealing over $15,000 in educational funds. In the previous case, Kelli Williams-Bolar, after refusing to remove her children from the Ohio school district in which her father lived, was arrested, charged, and spent 9 days in jail. She is now on probation for 2 years and must complete 80 hours of community service.
For the second time this year, a black mother has been arrested and charged with larceny – stealing education, defined in the simplest of terms as taking something that not only doesn’t belong to you, but rightfully belongs to someone else. For the second time, PUBLIC education has been defined as a proprietary right that only belongs to some children and not to others. For the second time, the law has allowed municipalities to decide what “public” is deserving, and what “public” is not. For the second time, the public-private distinction has absolutely dissolved.
I’ve heard a lot of arguments from folks about why what both of these women did was wrong. Most of these arguments have come from relatively well-to-do folks, who buy homes at high prices, and live in relatively high performing school districts. For them, education is proprietary, because it is paid for our of their (high) property taxes. Furthermore, they pay extra money, on a voluntary basis, to an education non-profit that supplements the property tax funding. That’s how their schools can afford art and music teachers, fully-stocked libraries, and full-time librarians.
But what is most important to these parents, and why they are so against “others” coming in and enrolling their children when they don’t live in the district, is due to scarcity. In the district where I live, children cannot always go to their neighborhood school because the reputation of how good the school district keeps the population of school-aged children growing, meaning the number of kids is growing but the number of schools is not. Parents here sometimes have siblings in schools across town from each other because one child one year had to be overflowed because there was no room in the neighborhood kindergarten class. Parents argue that they moved to these toney suburbs precisely for the schools; they pay high property taxes and contribute to the education fund precisely because they expect to get into the school and receive a top notch education. There is a sense that there is hardly enough to go around for the people who actually live here.
For these parents, while it is public education in name, they fully believe they are paying for it, in a very real sense. These parents argue that they could have lived elsewhere, could have bought a cheaper home, could have lived somewhere where there was less scarcity. But they didn’t. They chose to live here, and in some cases, sacrificed to do so. When “others,” who are not contributing to property taxes, or the education fund, come in and take a spot, in a very real sense it feels like stealing. It feels like these “others” are taking money that simply and clearly does not belong to them.
For a long time, I could not understand where these parents were coming from. It sounded like pure and simple selfishness to me. And the fact is, it is selfishness. But it’s not their fault. They are just playing the game.
We live in a society that has totally abandoned the goals of public education. Rather than the goal of creating a educated citizenry because that is what is best for a participatory democracy, education has been turned into an individualistic pursuit. Today, we speak of education as something a person has to get if they want to be anything in this world, rather than as something our nation needs to foster if we want to sustain our way of life. When the founders wrote the Constitution, while they wrote of the importance of “life, liberty, and property” they should have also wrote about the federal interests in education.
Because now, public education is no longer truly public. If public is taken to mean as “for the common good,” which public schools once were, they no longer are. Common schools were designed to educate all children, to make all children productive citizens, to foster a sense of nationalism, to develop “Americans.” But now, in our national lingo, public means “charity,” or simply, “free,” giving a sense that it’s only for those who cannot afford it. So when we think of “public education,” we think of what we have to provide to those who cannot afford “education,” and usually what we give those who cannot afford a basic provision of life – food, clothing, shelter – is a run-down form of what everyone else gets.
These two mothers – Tonya McDowell and Kelley Williams-Bolar – are on the front lines of class warfare, attempting to reclaim the commonsense definition of what it means to have public education. Public education is not just free, but it is an education that is dedicated to educating for the public, common, good. It is an education that recognizes that if some of us are uneducated, that is bad for all of us. It is an education that recognizes that equity cannot be ignored. It is an education worth going to jail for.