People line up to speak, mostly women of color. A Latina mother with a little girl clinging to her leg tells the crowd she volunteers at her kids’ school thirty hours a week and asks other parents to pitch in because help is desperately needed. An African-American custodian asks for the funds to restore jobs so she can keep her school clean.
A thin white woman in cargo pants comes to the microphone, voice trembling with anger. “You said this was a meeting to hear our input on the budget. And then you put up a slide that showed that most of the money has already been allocated. This year before you even asked us you’re adding twenty million dollars to put more police at schools. Who decided that what our children needed was more police?”
The CFO of the LAUSD, Megan Reilly, thanks her politely for her feedback. At the beginning of the evening, she’s given us a quiz, which we take via little clickers they’ve distributed to everyone. How does the LAUSD rank nationally in terms of budget? Upper 5? Upper 10? Lower 5? Almost everyone in the crowd knows the answer. We’re at the bottom. In fact, California spends less per student than any state other than Alabama. In the auditorium at John Burroughs high school, a small crowd of maybe 70 people has gathered for a town hall, mostly Latina and African-American women, many of them with children at their sides, to give the LAUSD input on how to spend the additional Prop 30 money, though as the woman in cargo pants points out, much of that money has apparently already been allocated.
A young mother with an Eastern European accent says that the parents at her school have personally fundraised to hire new teachers. With their own money, they paid for teacher training. This year, all of those teachers were removed from their school. Can’t they just keep their staff? They don’t even care that they’re paying their own personal money above taxes. Can’t they just keep their teachers?
A middle-aged Latino man asks for funding to be restored to Adult Education. Since Saturday classes are at risk of being cancelled, because he has a job during the week he’ll have no access to education if Saturday classes are cut. Sometimes he shows up and school is closed. The school is so broke they don’t even have money for paper towels in the bathrooms.
On and on and on. I’d thought there would be crazies, but there’s only one: a thin white guy who thinks iPads are going to give kids cancer. What’s most upsetting about this evening is that except for him, the people lining up for their one minute at the microphone are just stone-cold sane citizens pleading to be heard. It’s the LAUSD officials, with their brisk neat slides and veneer of professionalism as they present the disaster that is our underfunded school system, who seem crazy by pretending that if you put up a slide, it’s reasonable that our schools are cramming 45 or more children into classrooms in our most underserved communities while having cut almost every resource possible: librarians, counselors, custodians, assistant principals. My husband recently visited an elementary school in South Central where a teacher told him her classes were so overcrowded she did not even have enough chairs. She also asked him if he knew anyone who could donate shoes, because so many of her students needed them.
A middle-aged white man who’s a sub tells the crowd that he works in all grades. In kindergarten through third grade classes, it’s fine; the classes are capped at 24 and he can have individual conversations with all the kids. But when he goes to middle schools, he’s in enormous classes and there’s no possibility of any conversation, it’s just crowd control. How can we possibly say that we’re educating these kids?
A slender African American woman with two children at her side takes the microphone. She’s a teacher and she wants to know what in the world the LAUSD is thinking when they spend a billion dollars on iPads. What our children need is the opportunity to talk to a teacher so they can develop their high-level thinking skills, something that requires contact with a living human being. Who could possibly think we should be training our children from the time they’re five to have their faces next to a screen? She asks the LAUSD to please stop saying that technology is the new civil rights movement. It is an offense to the real civil rights movement, to the people who died in the fight for equality, a fight that is not over.
The audience cheers.
Years ago, outside my local grocery store, someone had inexplicably spray-painted: It felt sad. It felt sad. I think of that now because I am unspeakably sad. And also angry. Because the LAUSD is a train wreck. Whether at this point charters are partly to blame or whether they’re a logical response to a disastrous situation…I don’t know. I debate it in my mind endlessly.
All I can think is that, charters or not, we, the citizens of California, choose to spend less on education than any state besides Alabama. We put our fingers in our ears, close our eyes and hum and pretend to believe we that children in our city can get a real education in conditions so overcrowded that—forget librarians and counselors–classrooms sometimes don’t even have enough chairs. And this situation falls hardest on children of color in low-income communities without the resources to raise additional money for luxuries like teachers. Or chairs.
They’ll have plenty of police, though. I guess we can feel good about that.