Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Think Educationally, Act Locally

Since last fall, I have spent significantly less time writing and blogging. For one, I started a part-time teaching job. Also, as I wrote about here, in light of recent destructive parent trigger-type actions, I wanted to get more meaningfully and positively involved as a parent. Finally, as you may recall, I had decided to make a concerted effort to act less from behind a computer screen and more locally and face-to-face. So, mostly my writing has been in the form of PTA meeting minutes and e-mails, letters, and public statements to my local decision makers.

Besides the school-level work, during winter break I got (unfortunately) the perfect opportunity to be more active in local education matters. We're in year five of devastating budget cuts in my county. Some of this is due to budget constraints as a result of the economic downturn but it's also due to ideology which has taken a hold of our local governing body which says that 1) no matter how small or efficient already, government is too big and 2) all services belong on a magical free market. Paradoxically, many people who seem to support this ideology also want roads and services, like education, and a decent quality of life. It seems they just don't want to pay for it and they certainly don't want to pay for them for anyone else--see here for a good example of what I'm talking about.

Besides serving on the boards of two PTAs, I joined up with a group called Friends of Hanover Schools which is dedicated to advocating for enough funding (but coupled with smart budgeting) for our schools to be great and to electing pro-public education local and state decisions makers.

Volunteering and being an active part of our schools' PTA has given me humbling insights into how much work it is to run a school. On the one hand there are little tasks that can get big rewards and on the other hand there are big tasks that take lots of work which pay off only so much. It's also given me a new perspective into how schools and systems are run and what role parents can play (hint: It's VERY different from being a teacher). I've learned it's better to ask and listen to what is needed first and then see if it maybe ties into what I'd like to get done, rather than the inverse. Sometimes, for example, helping with something as mundane as making copies can make a big difference.

Being active in a local public education advocacy group has also been very educational. For one,  I have learned to put aside, without prejudice, goals that are important to me (elected school boards, rich and meaningful curriculum, and reducing the emphasis on high-stakes testing) in the interest of furthering the mission of our particular organization. I will still work on the other goals, but adequate funding was an issue around which this non-partisan group could rally.

If I compare my work on national education policy versus local/state education policy, it's been very different. It takes a lot more courage and also diplomacy to have conversations face-to-face and about every day, practical matters, than it does to have them on-line about theoretical matters. Things get far more complicated from the former perspective and much more rhetorical from the later.

That's not to say that being active at the national level was a waste of time. That was an education, too. For one, it prepared me to face people who disagree with me and who might say not-so-nice things. But I also learned the hard way the first time around that shaming helps no one, and that it's a mistake to assume that I'm a better person for valuing some things over others than someone who values others things over what I value. That doesn't mean I am not fairly confident that what I value will make our society a better place, but I realize that folks with another POV think that what they value will make society a better place, too. Lastly, at both levels, in the face of short-term defeat or disappointment, I have learned to not take disagreements personally, to plug along, and to keep my mind on the bigger picture.

So, what did I actually do as a citizen to take action? My first act was to write a letter to our Board of Supervisors (our local governing body). I sent a version of this letter to every member of the Board of Supervisors and of the School Board, I read a version of it out loud as a comment during citizens' time at the Board of Supervisors meeting, and I submitted it as a letter to the editor to our local newspapers. Second, I gave a presentation at an FOHS forum about how to be a more active citizen. Finally, despite our Board of Supervisors' failing to do anything to raise revenues and correct tax rates to 2007 levels, my fellow activists and I are not giving up. Their failure was a disappointment but was not surprising. And I am in this for the long haul.

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