Caitlin Wheeler is a founding member of Raising Our Future.
I am a public school parent. I attended private schools in my wealthy hometown in my wealthy state because the public schools in my town had a terrible reputation, and my parents, who weren’t exactly wealthy themselves, made sacrifices to send me to private school because they believed in education. Twenty years later I moved to back to the same wealthy town in the same wealthy state, and made a different choice for my children.
Our daughter is now entering fifth grade at our local public school, and our son will begin kindergarten in the fall. During our time in public school, we’ve learned that he reputation of a school has a lot more to do with the race and socioeconomic status of its students than the quality of its teachers. We’ve learned that dedicated parents engaging with elected officials by attending school board meetings and meeting with city council members and writing to state senators can have an enormous impact on the public school experience. We’ve learned that the benefits of attending school in our community, with our neighbors, far outweigh the costs of foregoing the private or charter school experience. And our daughter has learned as well – she has become fluent in Spanish, competed on the math team, studied the cello, sung in the school play, and made friends with kids from truly diverse backgrounds. Public school has enriched our lives.
But public schools require work. Schools are chronically underfunded and schools rely on parent money and parent volunteers to make up the difference. It’s thanks to dedicated and tireless parents that we have an on campus art studio, a performing arts show every spring, a physical education teacher, and school supplies. And we are lucky. Many many schools don’t have student populations whose parents can devote the time or money to pay for these things which should be a part of K-12 education without question, and the kids are the ones that suffer.
In order to give back to the school that has given us so much, I volunteered to serve on a committee that allocates school funding. Our school is a Title I School, which means that over 35% of the student body qualifies for free or reduced lunch. We receive a relatively small amount of money from the federal government every year to ensure equity of opportunity for underachieving groups of students. Our committee’s job was to ensure that these funds are spent in such a way as to maximize their positive effects on the populations in our student body who needed the most help. We spent HOURS poring over achievement metrics broken down by race and demographics and discussing how to best use our small amount of federal money to close achievement gaps. We had grand ideas for hiring specialized tutors, building an on campus library, hiring a literacy specialist, paying for specialized teacher certification. In the end, our budget always came down to basic needs – playground aides to ensure the safety of students at recess, classroom aides to help the teachers cope with crowded classrooms, and basic safety measures at the school. We have a wish list a mile long of things that could improve the educational experience for all our kids, but we can afford only the basics. If we lose Title I money, we lose some fundamental services at our school. And our school is one of the lucky ones.
K-12 education is primarily funded by the state governments, but states have limited tax bases and entrenched biases, and can’t fund schools at even the basic program costs. Kids should have a fundamental quality of education that will allow them to access opportunities and be contributing members of society as adults. The federal government, with its deeper pockets and broader access to resources, needs to step into that breach. Title I, which ensures that needy populations are getting adequate resources, should be expanded. Special education, which is mandated by the federal government, should be funded at the 40% that was promised by Congress when the mandates were passed (it’s currently funded at about 15%). The federal free lunch program, which for many kids provides the ONLY meal they’ll get, should be expanded to make the food more nutritious and appropriate for growing bodies. School choice sounds nice, but for many kids, their choices are limited by so much more than a voucher – their choices are limited by transportation, by availability, and by circumstance, and those kids deserve a quality education, too.
Raising our Future is committed to finding candidates who share our vision for an America where every kid has access to a free and appropriate education in their community, and who recognizes the role the federal government has to play in ensuring that. I’m a public school parent, after all, and I want what’s best for all of our kids.