Wednesday, March 19, 2008

My first school committee meeting, or, Mommy gets political

So, despite my concerns about looking like a crazed mama, I actually went to a school committee meeting tonight. Why? This blows my mind: the committee, having decided that the district needed full-day kindergarten, and realizing that there wasn't enough money in the budget to pay for it, was voting tonight on charging parents tuition for sending their kids to the full-day program.

There are a couple of things about this that bother me, and I'm going to try to be cool-headed and analytical about them:
  1. Education is a public good. (Okay, I know there's some argument about the semantics of this, but I'm in the Adam Smith camp, and I'm talking about the value of an educated populace rather than the day-to-day business of education.) It's something that we, as a society, all benefit from. Therefore, society as a whole should pay for it.

  2. Along the same lines, the committee was adamant that full-day kindergarten is the best way to educate our kids. I'm not sure whether I agree with this — I have several arguments on either side and would be happy with either half-day or full-day for different reasons. But if they think it's important enough to mandate, it should be important enough for them to fund.

  3. The people who will be hit hardest by the kindergarten tuition plan are the people who can least afford it: middle-class single-income parents of small children. Rich families can write a check without worrying; two-income families have to pay for day care anyway, so who cares whose name is on the check? Families with limited means can apply for a waiver. That leaves...well, me. And a few other people I know. We certainly don't qualify for assistance, but paying for kindergarten is going to be a big chunk of already-budgeted money. Ever heard the term "regressive tax"?

  4. The figure they're giving for next year's tuition is $1500. Compared to other districts offering similar programs (though nearly all of them also offer a no-cost half-day program), that's low. Suspiciously low. Watch for it to rise — Arlington's tuition just rose from $1800 to $2400.

  5. They'll allow parents who don't want to pay for the full-day option to take their children out at noon. But that also means that children who leave at noon will only have access to part of the curriculum: reading and math. No social studies, science, music, art or P.E. If the state requires schools to teach a certain curriculum, that curriculum should be available free of charge, even if it means making a full-curriculum half-day option available. (This was one of the suggestions from rock star school committee member Ann Rittenburg, but no one else on the committee seemed interested in listening to her.)
As I said, I went to the meeting. I sat through the committee's well-rehearsed reassurances that this was for the good of our children, that it was a bargain, that there is no other way to pay for it. (Did I believe them? Well, you know me: I'm a skeptic. And I'm really concerned that charging tuition for kindergarten sets a bad precedent, and the initial $1500 is just the camel's nose in the tent.) They opened the meeting up to questions and comments from the public, and I listened (with my hand up) as several people voiced concerns, which were largely glossed over. One elementary principal completely ignored the question he was supposed to answer, and (bless her!) my Relief Society president, who was called on next, said, "With all due respect, I think you didn't answer the question you were asked," and rephrased it, and asked the committee, "What do I tell my child who had to leave at noon when she comes back to school the next day and there are marigold drawings on the wall that she didn't get to do?"

After a few minutes of this, the superintendent said, "We'll take two more comments."

My friend Jen T., who clued me in to the whole they're-voting-on-it-tonight thing, said, "Excuse me, but this many people" (the room was overflowing) "showed up to voice their concerns about this and you're only taking two more comments?"

They chided her for speaking out of turn, and then refused to take questions from our corner of the room. And then they voted on the *#&@ thing, and it passed, of course.

So, since I never got to speak my piece, here's what I would have said.

"Several of you have compared this tuition to the busing and athletic fees that parents already pay in this district. I'd like to point out that what we're talking about isn't a usage fee. It's payment for something that's curricular.

"And you've also said that it's not necessary to continue hashing out the issue of half-day vs. full-day kindergarten. The reason we're going back to that issue is that you've only given us one solution: move to full-day kindergarten and have parents ante up the money for it. We're trying to explore options, and you're not listening.

"I'm not against full-day kindergarten — in fact, there are many reasons I'd support it. But I don't support a regressive tax on parents of five-year-olds. If we truly think this is the best thing for our children, then we need to pay for it as a community, not as individual parents. If you believe in this, let's take it to the town and let people vote on it. If the town thinks it's worth funding, then you have a mandate and let's by all means do full-day kindergarten. But if the town thinks half-day kindergarten is sufficient, then leave it as it is."

That's all. Really. I'd feel much better about it if I'd been allowed to say my piece. But I wasn't. At least I know they all got the e-mail I sent them this afternoon. They may not have read it, but they got it.

After the vote, Jen T. suggested something that would simultaneously get the school committee's attention and give our children a positive kindergarten experience. "We should organize a group of people who are willing to take their kids out at noon. We could form our own curriculum -- for example, on Wednesday afternoon we'll be at the Science Museum. And we make it so neat for these kids that instead of feeling left out of afternoon kindergarten, they walk out the door saying, 'See you, suckas! I'm going to Disneyland.'"

I'm going to follow up on this, see who's willing to do it, and put together a plan. I know Beth doesn't hit kindergarten for another two years, but we could have a really awesome parents' curriculum in place by then. (Note: Scott's laughing at me hard because I'm so adamantly opposed to homeschooling but I'm willing to do this. My only defense is that it's an educational cooperative, not homeschooling; I'm not protesting the type of curriculum taught, just the fact that they want to charge me for public education; and anyway I don't make my daughters wear floor-length denim skirts.)


Em Russ said...

Wow! I missed all the fun last night. I heard they were debating this but didn't get a chance to get in on the action. TOTALLY ridiculous! I wish you'd have had a chance to speak your mind.

Mindy said...

Amen Sister! The thing I've learned about Mass. is they never let the people vote, especially when they think the majority will agree their decision, but there seems to be a very large group that is strongly opposed to the issue. Welcome to this great state!

Danika said...

I don't even HAVE a kid yet and this infuriates me. Wish I could have been there!

Stacee Maree said...

Hey Libby it's Stacee here in Utah, your cuz. I am sorry that you have to deal with paying for kindergarten. Here in Utah it is not mandatory for kids to go to kindergarten so if I was dealt with that I would keep them home that year as well and start them the next year. I wouldn't pay for kindergarten in a million years. good luck with that.
Nice to see you blog too. You are pretty funny and your girls are adorable.

Brooke said...

Oh, dear. This. Is. Making. Me. SO. ANNNNNNGRY.

At the library where I work, "Free to the People" is written over the door in stone. And so it should be for pubilc school. Wish you could have razzed 'em a good one, Libby.

I've -- I've gotta -- ooh.

Time to eat cupcakes.

Rebecca said...

This is so wrong!!! I can't believe this.....I would be so angry. You got my blood boiling! It seems like the school system needs their priorities adjusted. They shouldn't offer full day kindergarten if the school district can't afford it! especially since kindergarten is mandatory! Amazing.