School Libraries Optional for Low-Income Children

In Seattle, a city booming around knowledge-economy and tech industries, low income children have access to only minimal materials in their school libraries while children in other parts of the district have access funded by parent fund-raisers:

In a survey early this year by Seattle librarians, they found one elementary school in Northwest Seattle that received $2,000 from the district for library materials and raised an additional $11,500, for a total of $25.47 per student. In that school, only 9 percent of students qualify for free- or reduced-price lunches.

Yet a similarly sized elementary in West Seattle, where 83 percent of the students qualify for federal free- or reduced-price lunches, only $2.14 is spent per student for books and other items. An average book in that school’s library is 24 years old, compared with 13 in the Northwest Seattle school

School librarians took this on, even while they could instead have positioned them in the better-resourced schools where their jobs were easier and more fulfilling.  Kudos to them.

Class, Shame, and Figuring Out How Everyone Gets Pencils in Class

When I work with first generation college students, the word that I hear more than any other is “shame”.  This shame can mean that they don’t talk about their backgrounds, or sometimes, even think about their backgrounds much as they move with determination through the education system.  That shame  can mean that they don’t advocate for themselves, that they don’t speak up when faculty or peers stereotype people like them, that they except failure as evidence that they didn’t really  belong in college in the first place rather than as a relatively routine setback that most students face. It means also that they’re often not coming to a deep understanding of how class works in schooling and how we might do things differently.

We talk in class about how we came to understand that we should feel shame about childhoods beyond our control, even as we now are people who overcome considerable odds — that we’re in fact complicated case studies of the “American Dream” of belief in opportunity for all, but rather than pride, we feel shame.  We talk about how we’ve come to understand that we risk derision, not admiration if we do talk about how we grew up.

And it can be very hard for everyone to identify how they came to understand  that even as they near college graduation, they still sometimes doubt that they belong.   We so talk about Bourdieu and socialization and habitus and I tell stories of times even now that I avert my eyes around people obviously more wealthy than me.

And still, its’s clear that understanding the shame is as much emotional as intellectual, and facing the emotional is a much more complex process than even  grappling with Bourdieu.

One of my favorite teacher bloggers, John Spencer, writes eloquently about how he’s realized how he had shamed kids in his classrooms, often over matters related to their social class backgrounds. He also offers solid alternatives to common school practices that convey so strongly that kids with less money deserve to feel ashamed.

I want to see more honest and brave writing exactly like this, where it’s not just poor and working class college students trying to understand how social class played out in  their schools, but where we instead look at the many many interactions in the daily life of hallways and classrooms that make it obvious how students wind up in my college classes, eyes averted, tentative, reluctant to tell their stories.


Private Fundraising, Public Schools

A former student was hired as a supplemental reading specialist at a school in which most – but not all – students had passed the state literacy exams.  The parents at this high-income school made it a goal to attain the highest test scores in the district, and then raised money themselves to hire an extra teacher to boost literacy scores.   A few years later, this same school hired another graduate of our program as a science specialist, a position again funded by parent fund-raising.  Across the district, my grad students who teach there tell me, children have very little time a week with stretched literacy specialists and most professional development time is spent trying to figure out how to lift more kids over the “pass” mark on state tests so that dire things aren’t done with the schools’ federal funding.

In another nearby district, parents in the northern schools raise tens of thousands of dollars each year in a school auction, while schools in the southern part of the district have trouble organizing PTAs, as many parents are immigrants moving in and out of nearby apartment buildings.  A principal friend in one of the south end schools joked that she was going to submit a grant proposal to the PTA of the wealthiest northern school, but I don’t think that she actually ever did it.

In yet another district,  many parents in one school work for a Big Name tech company, and one parent donated an entire computer lab to his son’s elementary school.  A teacher in a different school in the district with much more diverse students told me a few months ago that 20 minutes of every hour of computer time for her students  is spent trying to get their aging equipment to boot up and to connect to the inadequate internet.  Many of the kids just give up.

This private fund-raising to fill gaps left by widespread budget cuts has been something of a dirty little secret in education.  My new teacher education students are often somewhat shocked when we talk about it.    And they are more shocked when they hear how much many teachers pay out of their own pockets for classroom materials.

All of this, of course, merely masks how inadequately schools are funded and –more importantly — how higher income parents can shelter their own children from the effects of budget cuts.  When studies are done on the effects of school funding on achievement, these hidden, private funds are of course not included in the calculations.  It seems fair to ask whether *all* parents might invest more in the cause of adequate funding for schools if this private fund-raising were not an option.

The excellent publication Teaching Tolerance has called out this dirty little secret in this excellent essay  that includes examples of districts in which parents can raise money only for the district, not only for their own children’s schools.

We need to be talking much more about this,  naming the ethical issues in allowing some parents to privately fund their children’s public schools while still claiming to be providing equal opportunity.

Update:  In the New York lawsuit over ending tenure for teachers so that all children have access to good  teachers (an equity argument), we hear one of the plaintiff parents explain that a  bad teacher is one who does not spend her own money on basic classroom materials that the district has not provided.

Washington Post columnist Valerie Strauss weighs in:

But it is troubling when the lead plaintiff in an important lawsuit describes a “good” teacher as one who spends personal money to buy school supplies for kids and who gives young kids homework. In this definitional exercise, that means a”bad” teacher is someone who doesn’t do either thing. That’s beyond wrong. It’s scary.