Breakfast of champions (or Barn Owls)
Last week a petition went up, sponsored by The Mandell School in NYC, to demand that the Presidential Debate moderators ask questions about the candidates’ plans and ideas for education reform. It seems like a pretty simple demand – after all, No Child Left Behind was a signature Bush initiative, and Race to the Top has been a major Obama initiative – both of them taking huge policy steps at the Federal level to shape education in what has traditionally been a very local issue. If this trend continues then it makes sense that the men running for the top leadership position of the country should define where they stand on education.
It’s no longer easy to divide education ideas and programs along partisan lines. Things like vouchers, charter schools, breaking down of the teachers’ unions, are now fair game on both sides of the aisle. And the money is flowing from liberal-minded hedge funders as well as conservative think tanks. Forget everything you know about public education in the 70s and 80s – those battles have been completely upended, and opposing sides may be voting for the same guy come Election Day.
But, we all know Obama’s thoughts on education reform. You just have to look at Race to the Top and the horrible spread of standardized testing as the only measure of student progress and teacher effectiveness. I don’t think this was the intention of Race to the Top, but it has been the consequence. And to be honest, I don’t think Romney will have anything interesting to say except platitudes about preparing our students for the 21st Century and how every student deserves a great teacher. There’s not going to be any substantive talk about education either way.
Here’s what I would like to hear from the candidates – and not in a debate forum where the clock is ticking and the press is eagerly awaiting a zinger. I would like Obama to talk about why he chose Sidwell Friends for his daughters – a private school free from testing, free to create interesting, project based curriculum, free to limit their class size, but not at all free in terms of tuition. I would like Romney to talk about the heavily subsidized BYU, where the Mormon belief in a good education is put to work in terms of making the school very affordable thanks to the Church. And, since he went to a very fancy private school – Cranbrook, where my husband also was lucky enough to attend – I’d like to know what he felt he got out of his education, what he valued from it, other than bullying kids with long hair.
As I usher my daughters through the NYC Public Middle School application process this fall, I am more and more aware that our system that has too few seats, a crazy admission policy that varies from school to school, an obscene reliance on test scores that puts pressure on kids as young as 8, and no real data showing that any of this is good for kids in the long run or will produce more creative, smarter adults, I have to wonder – what could any politician tell me about education reform that I don’t already know or that I would believe?
This week I went to a screening of Won’t Back Down starring Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal. The movie is about a mom and a teacher who band together and use the Parent Trigger law (which is never mentioned by name) to take over and turn around a failing elementary school in Pittsburgh. The film is loosely based on real events (though in my research I couldn’t find anything other than the Los Angeles based parent trigger law, which was backed by a big charter school organization), and produced by the same man who produced Waiting for Superman. As someone who has been deeply embroiled in the discussion and reality of parents advocating for better schools, for student and parent rights, and as a PA C0-President who has worked closely with many teachers and administrators, this movie got to me on many levels. So, I have decided to break it down in two parts: As a movie and then as a propaganda film.
The Merits of the Movie:
Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal are wonderful. The acting is spot on and engaging. The script however, is full of holes and clichés and desperate to create dramatic tension because just trying to get names on petitions isn’t all that interesting. It could be interesting, of course, but the writer and director chose not to show any other parents other than Maggie Gyllenhaal’s plucky, positive, uneducated, but so endearing single mom on a mission. They also gave Viola Davis a horrible back story having to do with being a mom who couldn’t deal with a colicky baby, rather than the more difficult story I think of how a once great teacher could lose her passion and desire and become completely mediocre. Holly Hunter had the worst task of the movie playing the Pennsylvania Teachers Union boss – her role was so thinly written that people at my screening giggled when she gave her over the top pro-union scare speeches. I wondered how members of the Screen Actors Guild (or the screenwriters for that matter that just went on strike not that long ago) could play a part that so demonized another union. And that brings me to…
The Movie as Propaganda:
OK. I get it. There are terrible teachers out there and no one does a thing about it. They really don’t. They cross their fingers and hope they’ll retire. But, there are also a ton of great teachers, and a lot of average teachers. In this school, they pretty much all sucked except of course the young, hot, Teach for America Teacher! Though he toted a ukulele, not a Superman cape, he was clearly the hero. For the sake of romantic conflict they also made him pro-labor so he and Maggie Gyllenhaal could argue. But, don’t worry, once he saw the inhumanity of Holly Hunter he quickly realized the teachers union was the ogre and the cause of all public education woes and joined the turnaround crusade.
Here’s what never happened in the movie: A discussion by the teachers about how much their principal obviously sucked and how they could push him out and start to collaborate to have the school they envisioned. OR a discussion with their union leaders that they were unhappy about certain union policies and make themselves heard. Also – parents and teachers NEVER came together during this process except at the end in the council meeting. Seriously? If all you have is a bunch of parent signatures on petitions but no parents showing up for meetings or in classrooms you do not actually have parent involvement.
There was one moment in the film where I thought for sure Viola Davis’s character was going to have a true conflict. Her awful principal, who knew she was organizing this attempt to take over the school, suspended Viola Davis because of attendance tampering that she did at his directive. Here we go, I thought, now she will need the union. This is why teachers formed unions right? To protect them against petty personal administrators (particularly when admins were dominantly men and teachers were women.) But, no. That would have taken away from the union as devil storyline. So, instead of a real meaningful discussion between Viola Davis and Holly Hunter about what is right and wrong about the union – the two never meet. I won’t go into the ridiculous scene where Holly Hunter tries to buy off Maggie Gyllenhaal with free private school tuition for her daughter. Seriously.
I am all for parent power. I am all for getting rid of the crappy, demoralizing teachers who should not be allowed to step foot in a classroom. But, this movie made me sad. I was really hopeful in the beginning of the film because it was about teachers and parents working together – not something you usually see in movies. This wasn’t some public school movie where the wide-eyed liberal white teacher swoops in to the minority student school and teaches them violin and magically makes their lives better. We don’t need any more of those either. But, this was really a giant anti-union propaganda film that missed the mark. And that’s too bad because it had the chance to really say something about how parents and teachers can make change – and how hard it really is to find great leadership, and what can happen if we put kids first. There was NO mention of lack of funding at the school by the way, or lack of professional development for teachers, after school programs, etc. Seems if you just hang lots of butterflies in the hallway and paint the halls you make a great new school. That’s an insult to all the parents and teachers who really do work their butts off to make their schools better everyday.
Packing for camp means stocking up for 7 weeks of being totally unplugged!
This past Sunday The New York Times published an article, Way Beyond Bakesales: The $1 Million Dollar PTA, and my Co-President and I were featured in front of the PS 87 mural. We’ve been waiting to see how this article would shape up since we gave Kyle Spencer a tour of our school a few weeks ago. It’s not an easy decision to talk to the press about our PA fundraising because it’s so easily taken out of context and on the surface it looks absurd. Since Kyle herself is a public school parent at a fairly affluent public school, and the articles she’s written before on the subject seem fair enough, we figured we should show her our absurdly run down, crowded school and be able to explain how and why we use the money we raise as we do. But, as with anything, it’s incredibly hard to really get a full picture from a brief article – especially one that is meant to attract as much buzz and comments as possible. Luckily for me, I have my own platform to write about what really goes on and why we raise this money.
First, the issue that bothered every parent at PS 87 – we don’t raise $1.57 million dollars. We raise about $700K. An enormous number to be sure, but no where near $1.57 million. That other $800K or so, that’s our after school program. It’s pretty amazing, was started over 30 years ago by a group of PS 87 parents, and has about 450 students enrolled across the 5 days. Parents pay for the classes just like they would any after school program and the program runs on those fees. No fundraising, no profit. But we report our income as one to the IRS. Hence, the total reported on GuideStar.
Second, as I tell all reporters who call us about this issue, I really wish they would look at the official DOE budgets for the schools in question. Believe it or not the budgets are fairly transparent. (Though don’t even try to ask a DOE official to explain the budget – they can’t.) No reporter EVER does this!!! Click on over to the budget. It’s fun! It’s actually awful, but since my Co-President and I have spent the last 2 years pouring over it, it passes as a good time for us. Let’s take that bottom number, heck, I’ll even round up to an even $6 Million. Now let’s divide that by the number of kids in our school: A super comfy 963. What does that leave you? $6,230/student. Take that Horace Mann! Now, for extra credit go ahead and plug in another school – any school, maybe one that doesn’t raise the kind of money we raise, and see what their per student funding looks like. Told you this was fun. Almost as much fun as charting the budget cuts over the last 5 years. 25% but who’s counting. (Oh yeah, that would be me)
Third – We pay the full price for every program we bring in. That sounds perfectly normal right? Well, no. Many schools in the city and beyond qualify for arts, chess, music, wellness and other programs for free. And they should. These foundations raise money from outside sources so they can provide enrichment in our public schools where it’s desperately needed, especially since these are the first programs to go in budget cuts. But, these programs charge schools like ours full price. What does that mean? If we want the Wellness In the Schools healthy lunch program we pay $25K for it. If we want a coach at recess we pay $30K for it. If we want chess we pay $30K for it (for only 2 grades, I should add.) And we are happy to do it, because we can and because our parent body and school have decided it’s a priority. But if we don’t raise the money we don’t get those programs.
What else wouldn’t we have? Books, paper, cafeteria tables, most of our chairs and desks, text books, art supplies, substitute teachers (what a luxury), and an endless litany of other things that once upon a time were the responsibility of a government to provide in the name of public education.
So what is the real problem here? As I’ve written before, raising this kind of money comes with all sorts of problems. Does it let the city and state off the hook? I hope not. And that’s the other bone I have to pick – not with the article but with many of the comments. If there’s one thing our parent body can’t be accused of it’s being politically apathetic. Sometimes my Co-President is the ONLY one at all of those ridiculous meetings that the DOE holds at night, where they pretend to care what parents think. And we are so in the face of the Chancellor, our elected officials, Albany, hell, we’ve even been to DC on more than one occasion, that one fine DOE official sent an email to someone high up I won’t name and told them to tell my Co-Prez to “back the fuck off.” Only he cc’d my Co-Prez by mistake. OOPS!
The reason we raise so much money is not because people can write a check. If it were that easy we’d have no fundraising committee and wouldn’t have hundreds of volunteers spending ridiculous amounts of energy and time planning, recruiting for and executing events all year long. Parental engagement at this level is exhausting and most of our parents work full-time. One of the most insulting aspects to the ignorant comments was this assumption that the vast majority of parents at our school can afford private school and expect the same experience at their public school. How being able to make a donation of $1K or even $5K to a school is the same as affording $40K to a private school is beyond me. But, aside from that – it’s absurd that parents wanting art, gym and text books is somehow akin to privilege. Everyone should be outraged that this is a reality, not that parents expect this for their children.
I could go on. And in person, trust me, I do. But what I want in the end is for everyone to realize that issues like PTA fundraising are NOT the real issue when it comes to inequality in our schools. Not by a long shot. Start with the incredibly shameful lack of commitment to quality public early education and Pre-K – that is the big division that is the hardest to ever make up. You would have thousands of kids entering Kindergarten ready and able to learn and start to recognize letters and numbers – imagine that. And then take it from there – to the lack of teacher training, kids living in poverty, lack of healthcare, on and on. Looking to a handful of PTAs to figure out a way to share their fundraising instead of asking Cuomo to pass the millionaire tax to fund our schools at adequate levels is absurd. And what a gift this whole “debate” has been to those powers-that-be. When is the New York Times going to do that story? That’s the real million dollar question.
Last week the New York Times published an article about parent fundraising in NYC schools where gentrification has taken hold and the tensions over who can or cannot give, who decides how much to ask for and what kind of tension this creates at a school. It’s no surprise to those of us entrenched in this process that there is a constant balancing act of making sure those that can give do, and those that can’t give financially are not made to feel like they are left out of what a school fundraiser is trying to achieve. As PA (no T at our school) Co-President I get the same emails every year – a chunk of parents say the $600 annual fund ask is way too low compared to other schools like ours, and some parents email to say that it’s too high and makes them feel bad they can’t make that number. Money is tricky that way. Everyone sees this amount as somehow personal instead of what it is: how much the PA spends per student in one year. With a 600K PA budget, that would be around $600 for us.
But, there is a much bigger issue here. Our PA budget has tripled in the last 5 years, and our fundraising has tripled as well. This has happened while our Department of Education budget (called Galaxy – you know, ’cause it’s sooo big?) has shrunk 20-25% in the same time frame. At least. Parents are now paying for furniture, paper, textbooks, part-time librarian, art supplies, professional development for our teachers, instrumental music, science kits and even substitute teachers (yes, you read that right.) Not to mention chess, assemblies, dance, movement, art and kindergarten assistants. It’s absurd. And it results in two huge problems: First, it lets the DOE and New York State off the hook for cutting school budgets over and over again. In the worst bit of irony this year, as parents seethed with anger that a 3rd testing day was added to the State Standardized Tests, we the parents had to foot the bill for the test prep materials. It’s criminal and unacceptable, but we had no choice.
The second problem that no one is talking about with all of this parental money now being used so that a school can function – not flourish – function, is the inevitable tension that’s created between the teachers, administration and the parents. When teachers have to rely on parent money to stock their classrooms, to pay for professional development, to fund new academic initiatives, both sides are left in an increasingly uncomfortable position. From the outside it looks like everyone should be thankful that parents are able to fill this gap. From the inside there is resentment and a feeling that all of this fundraising gives parents too much say in how teachers do their job.
I’ve come face to face with this tension more than once, especially this year as the Galaxy budget has been slashed to the point where only staff salaries are covered. When parent money is used to fund academic programming, parents want, and I think deserve, to understand how these programs will work. There is an opportunity for this to be an incredibly positive experience – teachers and parents working together to make amazing things happen for our kids. But there is an inherent inequality in the collaboration. Teachers are in charge of our kids, all day. The principal will make decisions about where to place our kids every year. While they may think parents hold all the power, in fact parents are fairly powerless. The money changes that to some degree, but not in a good way. Teachers see parents as being intrusive, overly demanding and, my favorite term, “crazy.” Parents see the teachers as being ungrateful, obstinate and dismissive. Meanwhile, all we want is the same thing – the best possible school for our kids.
So where does this leave us? After 5 years on the PA Executive Board of my school, including one as Co-Treasurer and two as Co-President, through two principals and 5 years of budget cuts I have to say we’re left in a terrible place. Every year I watch hundreds of our parents spend thousands of hours volunteering for our school, mostly to raise money. Most of them work full-time and then go home to their kids to do homework, projects, enrichment, whatever. And I hate to say it, but it makes me ill when I take a step back and look at it. I don’t know how we got to this place, but I know it’s not right. Last year I wrote that parents should riot in the streets. The right thing would be for all of this energy to be aimed at our politicians, to demand that the schools be funded so that all of these essential programs are funded by the city and state like they are supposed to be. If we can figure out how to really, effectively do that, our schools, parents, teachers, and ultimately our kids would be way happier and everyone could get on with what their real job is in this system.
The education reform debate in the US focuses on testing, achievement measurements, teacher evaluations and data driven discussions that often miss the one major point – our education “problem” is a class and equality problem. If we dig down deeper into the causes and obstacles facing many of our students poverty is more often than not the deciding factor in whether or not a child will succeed in school. But, imagine if you had to dig down even deeper than that – to the point where not even having a school or access to education was the issue – and then you start to understand the challenges facing developing nations in Africa. How can you possibly tackle the greater issue of poverty without taking on the issue of education?
According to ONE, The Advocacy Non-Profit founded by Bono and his wife, education not only provides children and families with a pathway out of poverty, but it can also yield even bigger returns for the world’s poorest countries through its impact on areas such as health and the economy. Educated mothers, for example, are more likely to have smaller families, and have their children immunized and send them to school. Education can also provide families and countries with more economic opportunities and help promote the civic participation that is critical to building democracies.
Less than 1 percent of the US budget goes towards foreign aid. But look at this infographic, which shows the effect that small amount of money has on an area like education according to the US Aid website:
What ONE small thing can you do today to make change happen? Watch the video below by ONE member Katie Meyler, about a young African girl named Abigail. It’s a story about how education is the most powerful change agent there is. Abigail is now in school and at the top of her class because of More Than Me. The video was produced by the What Took You So Long foundation.
Watch it and share it – on Facebook, twitter and beyond.