School Beat: Flex Your Network

by Lisa Schiff on June 16, 2005

Being a part of the public school system is like living in two worlds. Inside the school doors, children are thriving, teachers are successfully practicing their craft, and parents are doing what they can to fill the holes. It’s not all milk and honey of course. Not all schools are serving all children equally well. Teachers and staff are having to engage in some dramatic sleights-of-hand to stretch out resources and get by with less. Parents are asked to do more then they ever expected.

But still, many schools are creating successful, engaging learning environments for kids. And ironically, the engagement of the parents and surrounding communities is helping to build rewarding, nurturing communities that exist as an anomaly in a society too often focused on commodities as opposed to people.
Stepping outside of the school though, is like getting slapped in the face. If there are sometimes serious challenges inside, there is a battle going on outside, and true to the expression, it’s raging. We all know this, and yet at times it is brought so directly to our feet that it can be hard to comprehend. Right now, as we all face the upcoming deadline to pass a budget for the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), is one of those times.

This past Saturday, the District sponsored a workshop on the SFUSD budget, lead by Myong Leigh, Chief of Policy and Planning, and Nancy Waymack, Director of Policy and Resource Management. This was an overview of the 2004-2005 budget and because the budget is complicated, and we only had two hours, it just began to scratch the surface of what attendees needed and wanted to know.

In a nutshell, the District is only able to spend, on average, a little less than $7,500 per pupil and the state and federal government are both failing to meet significant financial obligations that have been agreed to. For instance, the federal government has consistently failed to pay its agreed upon 40% of the costs of mandated Special Education programs, instead choosing to pay only about 21 or 22%. At the State level, we know the Governor Schwarzenegger has failed to reimburse the Proposition 98 monies that were suspended last year. These are just a few of the issues. What this all adds up to is about a $22 million dollar budget gap.

There are two strategies for tackling this financial problem. The first is to look at where we can cut expenditures, which is the painful process we all have been going through over the past months. The choices that have been laid out are all bad. School board member Jill Wynns attended the workshop, and said that the option that disturbed her most was having to consider cutting the afternoon snack for kids at some SFUSD sponsored programs. At this past Tuesday’s Board meeting, yet another program, the Sutro Child Development Center, was shutdown.

These types of decision are the motivation behind the second strategy, which is to expand our efforts to lobby our elected officials in order to increase our budget. We have to paint more compelling pictures for them of the real situations that are being created by this budget. We have to lay these decisions at the feet of those who are responsible, the Governor and the representatives.

A big challenge, we are told, is that because the budget must pass by a two-thirds majority, and there are not enough Democrats to meet this target, a budget that prioritizes more money for education cannot pass. But party affiliations are meaningless inside the classroom. Schools throughout California are in need of funding, no matter which camp their State Senators and Assembly people fall into. This statewide, universal experience contains some possibilities within it.

To date, we have been relying on major organizations like the California PTA, the California Teachers Association (CTA), and even related social service groups like the California Nurses Association (CAN) to make our case. They have been effective, but the Governor has pushed forward his Special Election agenda, and taken things to the next level.

As parents and public school supporters, we need to take it to the next level too. It is time to look to our networks throughout the state and start putting them in motion. We can mobilize each other across party lines for increased funding for education, because we are speaking out as parents, not as party members. We can contact our friends and family members throughout California, especially in more conservative districts and ask them to contact their representatives and describe the cutbacks that are being contemplated at their schools, in their districts.

A relentless stream of real stories from real constituents is what this is going to take. Here is an easy way to encourage people to take that step. The link below lets you find the contact information for the State Assembly member and Senator for a given zip code. Open your address book and find your friends and relatives who live in those more conservative areas. Find their representatives’ contact information and email it to them directly. Share what you have done and said to your representative, and ask your friends and family to tell you when they have done the same.

This is not just about writing letters. This is about building a movement of parents who know that we must do better for our own and everyone’s children. It’s about keeping up the pressure that the PTA and the CTA have ratcheted up so well. Everyday we see the realities and possibilities at our schools, which is what can help us transcend the distracting pitfalls of party affiliation and focus on the issues that matter to us in our lives.

More can be done within the existing system to fight for adequate funding for education. We have just begun to organize ourselves, form alliances, and set an agenda in motion. We need to engage in all of these activities, but it’s hard not to ask if this will be sufficient. Some have said that the struggle over public education is the civil rights struggle of the current times.

If that is so, we can look to that history and know that we must indeed keep pushing in the legislature, in the legal system, in the media and in our communities. But we must also remember that the Civil Rights struggle was won by engaging on many different fronts, including rejecting laws and decisions that were unjust. This fiscal crisis is pushing us near a very fine line. At what point do we say enough is enough?

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children who attend McKinley Elementary School in the San Francisco Unified School District and the president of the board of directors of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco (PPS-SF).

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