This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Good schools for everyone

Real Families: Meditations on family life

An Ohio mother was recently arrested, charged and given a felony conviction for falsifying records on school forms. On the school enrollment form she listed a false address for her children, an address that is within the school system. The mother and her daughters actually lived in another, nearby district.

Shands_stoltzfusShe did this so that her daughters could attend a better school than the one assigned to them based on where they lived. Once the story about the woman’s crime was released, public opinion weighed in on a number of issues, but two rose to the top: (1) the rightness or wrongness of the mother’s actions, and (2) why anyone would risk arrest for such action. The mother was valorized by some and vilified by others, with pundits and regular people taking sides in two opposing camps. Some said it doesn’t matter why she did it, the woman broke the law by taking something that was not hers to take, and she should be held responsible for her actions. The other camp argued about the disparity in the education system that necessitated such a choice.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, over 80 percent of funding for primary and secondary schools comes from state and local governments. Funding schemes are complex and vary from state to state and district to district and cannot be neatly summarized here. However, because most public schools in the United States receive a large portion of their funds from property taxes, the prosperity or poverty of a given neighborhood may likely directly correlate with the resources available to help fund local schools. Poor districts have poor schools; wealthier districts have more resources available to them.

When I was growing up, my school district was modest at best. I had many fine teachers who were enthusiastic and encouraging and taught me well. I was able to participate in a number of extracurricular activities—radio club, journalism club and gospel choir.

But year after year, the system struggled more and more, victim along with other city institutions to a battered economy. Even with the good memories of engaged, dedicated teachers and some extras, I was aware of what we didn’t have, because I knew what friends who lived in wealthier districts had in their schools. With the hindsight of an adult who knows many public school teachers and their struggles, I now wonder about some of my teachers who were less enthusiastic. Had they been worn down by trying to do too much with too little?

As the city tax base eroded because people with means migrated to the suburbs for better services, including schools, our local system suffered even more. During those years, it seemed as if everyone who could get out did so, diminishing the base that supported schools even more. By the time my own children were ready for school, we were faced with the school question ourselves. And yes, we moved to the suburbs—in part because we knew our children would attend schools that had smaller class sizes and more resources. It was a privileged choice. Like others before us, we made the choice that would benefit our children, knowing we were taking our tax revenue with us and therefore participating in the decline of the school system. The decision that was best for our child was one that benefited our family and disadvantaged others. And we were privileged enough to make that choice without having to break the law. I recognize that we continue to be privileged enough to have children attending private Mennonite schools where they (and I and the church and the world) benefit from the excellent instruction and care they receive.

Because of that decision and my own experience as a public school student, I understand what Kelly Williams-Bolar did. We wanted the same thing—a good education for our children. Ms. Williams-Bolar, a single mother on public assistance, a student herself (studying to become a teacher) had fewer resources than I did. Her act, I believe, was one of desperation—she did the best she could to carve out an individual solution to a structural problem. As a mother, I understand her actions well. But I hope that even if I were not a parent, I would want the best for her children and for all children, not just mine. I hope I would still work for systems and structures that benefit all children in this country and in the world, so their parents don’t have to break the law to get what my children get.

Regina Shands Stoltzfus is working on a doctorate in theology and ethics at Chicago Theological Seminary.

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