Thursday, May 09, 2013

Everything Is Worse When You Don't Have Enough Money

Carol Lloyd:

When Lutz opened her letter from the San Francisco Unified School District to learn her daughter had landed a spot at Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy, she felt optimistic — lackluster test scores notwithstanding. On the tour Lutz had noticed the small class sizes, the beautiful classrooms filled with light, and the civil rights theme embodied by the rainbow coalition of children beginning their day with a “pledge of allegiance to the world.”

She joined a fundraising nonprofit founded to help raise money for the school from the surrounding neighborhood. That's when Lutz got a glimpse of the hostility between a few of the parents — mostly white and middle-class — and the new African-American principal. “I thought, what have I gotten myself into?”

The fighting was “so unpleasant,” Lutz shifted her focus to co-chair the parent-faculty club. Compared to neighboring schools with turbocharged PTAs, the school’s fundraising paled in comparison. “Teachers even complained about not having the most basic of supplies,” explained one mother. So with a small group of zealous parents, Lutz helped organize events that brought in some $16,000. While the money would have been needed either way, the rising enrollment of more affluent families tipped the scales and changed the school's budgeting for the worse. As the percentage of low-income students and English language learners fell, the school lost funding that helped support teacher aides and the other extra staff. “I think there was a lot of resentment about that,” says long-time Harvey Milk parent Jennifer Friedenbach. (Tracy Peoples, the principal, did not respond to requests for an interview.)

When the YMCA aftercare program asked the parent club to send an email about how to sign up for the program, Lutz found herself on the defensive. One mother — who, like Lutz, is white — objected that email communication would exclude families who most needed aftercare. When Lutz explained that there was room for every child and no one would be excluded, she says she received emails “accusing me of being racist and being an elitist and catering to certain parts of the school. The level of vitriol was off the chart.”

On one hand, yes, these are complex issues, and as it turns out, I don't feel very comfortable with either the affluent white parents at the girl's pre-school or the parents at our daughter's public school, so I've avoided getting very involved with either, which just means I'm a cranky, opinionated misanthrope. I'm sure everyone mentioned in the article would just get on my nerves.

But anyhow, reading over Lloyd's article, it is clear that everything is worse because the school doesn't have enough money:

And for parents whose school becomes a spectacle of infighting, the solution is often to lie low and reduce involvement, or move schools. “Now nobody wants to get involved or raise money,” says Lutz, with a weary sigh. “Since then we’ve lost our parent liaison, our reading specialist, and I think our arts, science enrichment, and civil rights camps will go by the wayside, too.”

We can wring our hands over the nuances of diversity and gentrification, but the fundamental problem is that the school's budget isn't covering a full program, and distracting people's attention away from that fact ensures it will not be addressed.

And indeed, one of the main reasons you want a mixed income student body is so that more affluent parents will lobby the government for increased school funding. If they think they're there to run bake sales, they're missing the point.

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