School Beat: Burning Moms (and Dads) Unite!

by Lisa Schiff on April 30, 2009

“Mother on Fire” Sandra Tsing Loh is at it again, organizing a second California Children’s Rally intended to bring massive numbers of California families to Sacramento to impress upon our legislators the need for solid, sufficient funding for our state’s public schools. June 23rd is the date, so grab your calendars and see if you can fit in a field trip to the Capitol into your summer plans.

Loh’s Children’s Campaign is a follow-on effort to a similar event she organized last year. At the Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco’s Annual General Meeting this past Saturday, Loh presented in her reliably hilarious fashion her documentary of the event, which also served as a backdrop to explain how she went from being a “Mom on Fire” to a “Burning Mom.” In short, she got more frustrated and angry with the status quo and wasn’t going to take it anymore.

And that was how the Children’s Campaign was born.

Other marches have made their way to Sacramento for the same purposes and with the same constituency. Last summer, not only did Loh’s band of families stage events on the Capitol steps and make their way into legislators’ offices, but a troupe of San Francisco educators and families from Harvey Milk Elementary School did too, walking the entire way as a show of the seriousness of the problem and their dedication to its rectification. The PTA has organized several marches over the last handful of years. So have teachers.

But as Loh’s documentary shows (albeit with tender-hearted humor and optimism) and as we’ve experienced after participating in or reflecting on the results of all of these efforts, this is going to be a slow and long process. The factors that keep public education and other essential social services in peril are multiple and intertwined in such a way as to form a very hard knot to disentangle. The essential threads are Proposition 13, the Republican do-or-die pledge to never vote for an increase in taxes, and the two-thirds requirement for the legislature to pass a budget or taxes. Of these three, it is the last, that ridiculous, budget-stalemate-inducing-vote-threshold, that is really the core problem.

So it may be time for public education supports to change tactics. We’ve been asking, quite rightfully and righteously, for adequate funding for our schools. But it could be that that’s the wrong question at this moment in California politics. We need to think bigger and broader and focus on the context of our problem, understanding that in some ways, it’s a symptom of something much larger. Realistically, we are never going to get anywhere in our budget advocacy when there is no structural way for those needs to be met.

Our challenge right now then is to work to change the need for that crazy super-majority, using the damage it has done and continues to do to public education as a prime example of why that change must come about. And because on many levels the painful lack of funding for schools is no different than the lack of funding for all of the many other social services our state should be providing, we can join forces across a variety of interests and communities, all with the same end-goal in mind. That would be a powerful movement indeed.

Various Democratic legislators have been trying to break down that two-thirds wall for some time. The last such effort in 2004 was defeated and it’s not clear when another opportunity to vote this down will be presented to us. When it does though, public education supporters should see it as a school issue and we should be prepared to put the same kind of energy into passing it that we’ve put behind protecting Proposition 98.

Maybe this is the message we can bring to Sacramento on June 23rd. Families in California want big changes, changes at the foundation that reflect a commitment to providing essential services to our state’s residents, education being one of them. We’re tired of stalemates, tired of dividing up an ever-shrinking pie. But now we’re more than tired, we’re mad, burning mad.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children who attend McKinley Elementary School in the San Francisco Unified School District and is a member of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco and the PTA and is a board member at the national level of Parents for Public Schools.

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