I won't pretend to have an absolutely perfect view of the political situation; most of the information I'm getting is either from Internet news articles (which slant very pro-union, pro-education, and pro-not being total assholes) or from people who are actually in Wisconsin. But from where I'm sitting, it looks like the new Governor of the state took a budget surplus, turned it into a budget deficit by granting tax breaks to corporations and extremely rich people, and is now trying to take the balance out of the public school system. And maybe succeeding.
I keep hearing the phrase "personal responsibility" being thrown around in discussions of Why This Is The Right Thing To Do. We need lower government spending, including lower educational spending, and if you don't like it, that's what private schools and home schooling were invented for. Um. Okay. You know who doesn't have much personal responsibility? A kindergartner. When I was in kindergarten, my idea of "personal responsibility" pretty much began and ended with remembering to leave room for lunch in my schoolbag, which was otherwise packed with My Little Ponies. I wasn't very consistent about this. Does that mean I shouldn't have been allowed to go to a decent school?
Little kids don't know rich from poor. They don't learn racism, or sexism, or religious intolerance until we teach it to them. They just know that when they go to school, they want the teacher to be fun to learn from, the crayons in the art cabinet to be unbroken, and the library to have books worth reading. They want to learn. Bad schools beat that desire out of them, and underfunded schools, unfortunately, often turn into bad schools. Not because the teachers don't care. Not because the parents don't care. Because the resources aren't there to do anything more than just get by.
I grew up in California, so far below the poverty level that sometimes, there was no heat in our apartment. We moved at least once a year, because that was what the eviction notices required, and every time we moved, we wound up somewhere smaller, and uglier, and scarier than the place before. And through it all? Through it all, I went to great schools. I attended Sequoia Middle School, a magnet school for college prep kids. It was Nerd Prep, and I loved it there. I took Drama and Art and Computers, and I got the exact same classes as the kids whose parents made six figures a year. I attended College Park High School, the college prep high school, and I took Drama and Ceramics and Art and AP English, and I learned.
Did I get picked on for being poor? Yeah. My clothes were old and often ugly, my haircuts were unfashionable, when my glasses got broken, I glued them back together and wore them for another year. But I got to learn. I had access to teachers and books and librarians who knew what they were doing. If I had been forced into an underfunded school with teachers who had to work a second job at night to keep their own heat on (and teachers are already pretty poorly paid, especially when you consider that they're educators, role models, mentors, impromptu counselors, and half a dozen other things besides), that wouldn't have happened, and the person I am today wouldn't be here.
People like me cannot exist if we stop prioritizing universal access to good schools, good teachers, and classes that do more than force every student through the same cookie cutter curriculum—something that becomes necessary when you have more than thirty students to a teacher. If we start making education a matter of "personal responsibility," then we're really saying that poor children should have one more disadvantage added to the heaping tower of things already stacked against them. Not every parent can home school. Not every smart child can afford tuition, or be the one to win the scholarship. Not every child has choices.
My tax dollars fund schools. If I were allowed to decide where my tax dollars went, all the dollars currently funding guns would fund schools. But I don't get to do that, so all I can do is hope that people who benefited from our public school system, or have ever known anyone who benefited from our public school system, will say "You know what? I don't need another tax break on my five billion dollars a year. Let's buy some desks."
What's happening to the Wisconsin school system is wrong. And I'm terrified that it's going to work, and the people who think it's a good idea will start trying to do it everywhere else in the country. Children don't need personal responsibility.
Children need to learn.