First Person is an occasional Chalkbeat series featuring personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education.
“We’re really lucky here. We have it better than most. Our parents are a force to be reckoned with.”
That’s what my co-workers said to me as I started out my career teaching in Denver Public Schools. And it was true. We did have fantastic parent groups focused on our school community. We were lucky.
The parents made sure that we could afford the necessary supplies for our classrooms — and then some — offering grants of up to $1,000 per teacher per year.
They made our 100-year-old school building bearable, raising the funds to update the counseling center, fix up the lunchroom, plant a garden, buy window fans, decorate the hallways.
They made sure that when we stayed late for parent conferences we were well fed with dinner and dessert. That our staff meetings and break room were well supplied with snacks and coffee.
They created a fund to ensure that all our students had team uniforms, class fees, calculators, textbooks, payment for field trips and bus passes.
They gave us an amazing theater program, with stages, sounds, lighting and sets. A yearbook and school newspaper. Multiple choir, jazz, dance and orchestra productions. A robotics team. A constitutional law team. Speech and debate teams. A woodshop. A beautifully restored library. Multiple Advanced Placement course offerings. Our students sang with choirs in Africa, saw art in Paris, fed sea turtles in Costa Rica, climbed Machu Picchu.
We were so very lucky. We didn’t have everything, but we had enough.
“I don’t even know how to thank you enough — for all you do,” I said to a parent in a woefully inadequate attempt to express my gratitude.
“Well — we can’t change how badly the state funds education, but we can change things for this school,” came the response.
Who could disagree?
It wasn’t until I switched roles and started to visit classrooms in other schools that I began to see things from a different perspective.
Other public schools in our district were really struggling. Teachers worried who would have their positions cut next year when enrollment declined yet again. They spent a large portion of their paychecks on classroom supplies and snacks for their students. They worked unpaid as club sponsors and tutors. The sinks had mold, the drinking water was contaminated with lead, there was asbestos in the walls. There was often no theater program, marching band, or robotics team. The librarian only came one day a week. Students with special needs just didn’t get the extra para support. There wasn’t enough to go around.
“You’re the privileged ones. You and your rich parents. It’s not like that for the rest of us,” one of the teachers complained, understandably wary of me.
These were the teachers who had stood beside me just months before on the picket line, fighting for a more equitable pay system — for all of us. The same teachers who spent long hours at negotiations, put in their union dues, and working at least as hard as I did — without all of my privileges. These were the teachers who had my back. We couldn’t have done it without them.
You can’t fix it all, but you can fix it for your kid. That’s the mantra we’re conditioned to believe. The scarcity mindset. The hoarding of opportunity. At the end of the day, your kid is the one that matters.
Nationally parent organizations have subsidized teacher salaries, art and music programs, after school enrichment, playgrounds, and so much more. They have paid to keep programs open, buildings updated, libraries staffed, facilities rented, and athletic coaches on staff. In a state like Colorado where state funding barely covers the essentials, it makes sense that parents would try and bridge the gap. But the majority of the $425 million raised annually by parent groups goes to less than 10% of our nation’s public school children.
This means that parent donations often exacerbate inequities in public schools that are already funded in large measure by localized wealth via property taxes. These inequities exist as part of growing class disparities in our society, which occur amid increasing segregation by race and class, a reluctant public that refuses to vote for tax increases, and amid the backdrop of the rise of billionaire benefactors who powerfully shape social class policy via electoral politics, targeted philanthropy, and think tanks.
So as wealthy parents are publicly praised for bridging the gap for their own kids, we must always ask, “Who will be responsible for the other kids?” The kids whose parents love them just as much, and want for their kid the same opportunities that others are given? If provision and quality of resources that wealthy parents fight for is important for their kids, is it not also important for all our kids? Where is the line between giving due praise for generous contributions in moments of austerity, and enabling a two-tiered system that allows districts (and states) to shirk their responsibility to provide an equitable educational experience for all our children?
Especially after Denver’s teacher strike earlier this year, I believe teachers unions can play a powerful role in standing against systems of oppression, even ones that can be hard to make out. The union says: “It is not about what is best for me. It is about what is best for us. Your suffering is my suffering and I will fight for you, even when you cannot fight for yourself.”
Often teacher unions have taken a hands-off approach to funds raised by parent organizations. Who are we to tell them how to spend this money? But how can we talk about economic injustices and not fight against it when it occurs within our schools? If we turn our back on inequities in funding (in all its sources), how can we then take offense when parents in marginalized communities opt out of public schools in favor of a charter school that offers them the resources they have been denied? In many ways, their choice is a result of society’s failure to push for the rights of all parents to have access to the same provision and quality of resources enjoyed by the children in wealthier schools.
True equity is dependent upon the voluntary relinquishment of privilege of an individual for the betterment of the whole. Can it actually work in practice? Teachers unions are uniquely positioned outside of traditional class-politics to have the opportunity to show that it can. If we continue not to object when parents dictate which schools get extra money and which do not, then we perpetuate the inequalities we profess we are fighting against. But if we press for resource-sharing, systems to distribute parent donations, and transparency about parent fundraising, we can prove the possibility of distributing wealth based on a system of fairness.
Parents might balk that they can no longer hoard opportunities for their kids — but they also might continue demonstrating their ingenuity to raise capital and resources. Maybe they will join with us to push for legislation to adequately fund all our schools. After all, as my colleague told me, those wealthy parents are a force to be reckoned with.