In 1979, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom printed and distributed one of the most enduring bumper stickers of our generation. Adorning bumpers even today, some 40 years later, is the simple, yet powerful message, “It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the air force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber.”
This month’s blog is not anti-military. In fact, it has nothing to do with the military. I am in full support of our military professionals and the Air Force. I do not begrudge the military the necessary resources to do the important job of keeping our nation, including her children, safe. I also don’t think the military should have to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber. This blog is about schools. I cannot help but marvel at how profoundly this stark (and in my estimation, true) statement cuts to the heart of our priorities in modern day America.
School Funding Mess
As a School Superintendent in the State of California, I am all-too-familiar with the history, conditions, and challenges of school funding in the great “golden” state. One only need to Google “school funding issues” to find nearly 200 million links to articles describing a long history of challenges in nearly every state in the United States.
Since California is the state whose funding issues I know best, I’ll choose my state to offer a brief history lesson on school funding as an example. On June 6, 1978, California voters passed with a 65% majority what has become known as the “taxpayers revolt” and remains the most consequential act of direct democracy in California history: Proposition 13. Almost overnight California schools lost one-third of their funding. Very quickly, California, once the envy of the country in terms quality of life, went from the top quartile in both school funding and academic achievement to the bottom quartile in both.
What has resulted is a public school system of “haves,” “have nots,” and “have even lesses.” Public school districts across the state must rely on parcel tax campaigns, organize educational foundations, and reach out to corporations and nonprofits to piece together the funding they need to offer the quality educational program that should be guaranteed to all students. Districts that lack the capacity to ask their community for “extra” funding must make do with the funding available from the state. California has recently clawed its way up from near the bottom in funding to where it currently resides at 21st; however, we are nowhere near where we should be as the fifth largest economy in the world. Have our priorities changed? Do we no longer value strong public schools?
Pubic Schools Matter
Over ninety-five percent of America’s students attend public school. As a forum for instilling our ideals, preparing our future leaders, maintaining the world’s largest economy, and fulfilling the great American promise that all are created equally, nothing has greater potential for good in our democratic society than our public schools. Yet we allow them - and the families they serve - to be the perennial punching bag for balancing budgets, curtailing government overreach, or passing blame for societal ills. Even worse, we allow our public school system to be systematically undercut by experiments in private management with little accountability.
We are at a crossroads. For generations our place at the top of the world economic food chain seemed cemented, and now other countries are catching up. That’s not a bad thing; a rising tide lifts all boats. But we must keep up if we are to ensure a prosperous future. Today’s economy and the economy of tomorrow will require divergent thinking, multilingual collaboration, and creative problem solving. Schools must graduate learners that think and work in a fundamentally different way. If we are to be the global leader that we desire to be, we need to invest more, not less, in our public schools.
Whether it be community pride, safety and security, health and wellness, strong local economy, or home value--good schools are the difference maker. One only need to look at the vast difference between school districts just within the San Francisco Peninsula, where the small school district I lead is located, to see how quality schools and the perceptions of those schools impact everything else within the community. There is no better investment in a community’s long-term health than in its public schools. And as true as that statement may be, the challenge we face as educators is making this case to folks who don’t yet, no longer, or will never have kids enrolled in the local public schools.
Be The Change
Mahatma Ghandi is credited with saying, “Be the change that you want to see in the world.” If we are to take anything from the 1979 bumper sticker, it’s not that the military should get less or that baked goods are bad for you; it’s that schools must be a national, state, and local priority. We all have a responsibility to see to it that our public schools are supported, that pro-public school candidates are elected to office, and that challenging financial times don’t result in the sacrificing of our most precious resource--our children.
School Boards play an important role in educating their communities about the challenges that face their schools. I’m fortunate to lead a school district supported by thoughtful and innovative school board members. In our district, the Menlo Park City School District, we have been able to come much closer to the ideal educational experience that ALL children in California deserve. We’ve been able to do so through years of visionary staff and board leadership, the financial support of a hard working educational foundation that raises $4 million dollars per year, and a supportive electorate that has passed five parcel taxes over 25 years. It’s a shame that we have to spend our time fundraising to provide an experience that every California child deserves; yet, we are willing to do it because it is the right thing to do.
The work of our school board leadership is not complete; our members have now embarked on an effort to define what our district’s “experience” would look like if we were “fully funded.” This effort is aspirational, for sure, but the results will not be indulgent. We will seek to define an experience that is research-based, student centered, and reflective of our community’s values. We’ll focus on areas such as class size, facilities, curriculum, programming, staffing, and compensation. And then...we’ll put a price tag on it. We may never get to the “fully funded” ideal that we set forth, but we’ll at least have a benchmark to determine how far away we are and, like a lighthouse beaconing a ship, we’ll have a vision on which to fix our gaze.
As the superintendent of Menlo Park City School District, where I am also a parent, I am grateful beyond words. If you want to know what our community values, look at where they invest--in their schools. I thank every volunteer, every donor, every self-appointed cheerleader for our schools. Without their support and confidence, there’s no way we could offer the smaller class sizes; the modern and safe campuses; the art, music, PE, science, library and electives; the focus on wellness and mental health; nor, the outstanding student-centered education we provide. And the return on their investment? Bright futures for their children and their neighbor’s children--an asset that benefits the entire community. Isn’t every community worthy of this reality? I think so.
If you are reading this and you are a resident in Menlo Park City School District, take pride in giving whatever you are able to the MPAEF and to your school’s PTO. If you are a voter anywhere in the country soon to vote for school board members, or parcel taxes, or bond measures, or state legislators--cast your votes in support of public education. If you are a parent in a public school, join your parent organization, get involved, and share your talents. If you are an empty nester with some time on your hands, visit your local school and volunteer to read with kids. We can all do something. Our schools deserve it. Our kids need it. Our future depends on strong public schools!
Erik Burmeister is the Superintendent of Menlo Park City School District in the heart of Silicon Valley.