if this ain’t class warfare

(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.

8 thoughts on “if this ain’t class warfare

  1. I debated responding to this because I am a homeschooler. I know you all are going to skewer me, but I have got to say, that if you cannot see that public education is a system designed to keep each class of person in thier place… forever… after reading this and other stories where mothers are ARRESTED for trying to improve thier children’s lives, I just don’t know what will. Public admininstrators know the truth. Public education may be free, but it ain’t equal. The type of education an inner city youth recieves and an upper middle class school student is vastly different in quality. When a gov’t system is willing to arrest parents who try to step-up thier child’s access to a better education… you have to think about that. Why wouldn’t you work with this parent? Why would you ARREST them? Why in 2011 are African American males still at the BOTTOM of all SAT takers? All? Unless they are trapped in sub-standard public educational systems, operating to ensure failure?


  2. I’m not going to skewer you. And I don’t disagree with you, if what you are describing is what IS happening, rather than what SHOULD be happening, or what HAS to happen. I went to public schools in Philadelphia, a majority black city, and I ended up going to Ivy League universities. So did many of my black friends.

    Yes, public schooling when it is structured as local property taxes funding local schools is fundamentally flawed. It inherently keeps poor schools poor and rich schools rich. But that does not HAVE to be what public schooling looks like. Public schools can be funded in numerous ways, including pooling funds in larger “buckets” – like at the state level, or even federally. Funding could be allocated according to need, rather than accumulated wealth.

    One thing, though HSN: I (still) don’t understand how homeschooling saves us. We can’t all homeschool, obviously. Our best bet is to fix public education.


  3. LaToya, I would never say homeschooling is for everyone, however it is an option that should be respected for what it is… an opportunity to educate your child by any means necessary. I believe you should do whatever you have to do to get the best education for your child, however with that said, I went to public school and went to a very good college. The public school I went to 30 years ago was a neighborhood school in the rural south. Teachers were serious about seeing students succeed, and my classes were small. Flash forward, this same school graduated a class of 118 students last year, and none were honor graduates (meaning a gpa of 3.5 or better). NONE. In fact, they ended the National Honor Society program because of “lack of participation”. Wow. What happened?
    I love your idea about a pot of funds and every school gets the same number of dollars per student. That is fair and would prove that our government is not trying to create a permanent underclass and using the current educational system to do it.


    1. HSN: I don’t disagree with what you are saying. But what you are saying – that homeschooling should be “respected” as a “option to educate YOUR child by any means necessary” is exactly the behavior that I wrote this piece about. I don’t think you are wrong to homeschool your kids. Things will not change if only one parent sacrifices their child in order to help others. But when will we stop thinking that education is only about OUR child and not about the masses? When will we recognize, as a nation, that this inequality in education will not serve us well?

      Other nations who have more equitable systems frankly have smarter kids ACROSS social class. Their most mediocre kids are outperforming our best kids. Our system is not self-sustaining in the long run. It simply is not. And my point to you is that if everyone does as you are doing – only looking our for THEIR kids – you get what we have today. A system of public education that is not truly public, a sham of participatory democracy that can never be truly equitable. Having an educated citizenry is good for the country, and while we give lip service to that, neither our elected leaders nor do WE as parents actually act in ways that signal that we believe that.


  4. If I had a viable option in public education I would not homeschool. I did not choose to homeschool, I was driven to it. It was either this, or like some moms, go to jail, to get your child a better education. I totally agree with you that it would be great if we were more equitable with quality education. I wish it were true. I also agree that it would be wonderful if every school had the same resources. Why isn’t that the case?? However, until that happens, I am held socially, academically, and spiritually responsible for three children. My own.


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