Ten days ago, I had the privilege to speak with Jerry Jordan’s UW-Madison seminar students on issues in education, specifically the “Race to Equity” report. By this point, I’m sure most of us who live and teach in Madison (and Dane County) are aware that the equity gaps in education, incarceration, employment, wealth, etc … have only gotten worse for Black people since the last report came around in 2013. I doubt any of us haven’t seen that article running around Facebook where we do our usual song-and-dance lament over the systematic racism in all facets of our existence in Madison. Frustrated Blacks, chastened whites, and everyone else in-between did their solemn anti-racist duty of linking it and saying “Nothing has changed since [insert year here].”
The seminar students weren’t exactly surprised. Some grew up in Madison or Milwaukee and are aware of the historical mixture of apathy and aggression in our systems against people of color. We linked the neglectful way Black students were segregated out of this year’s homecoming video to the photoshopping of Diallo Shabazz into an application booklet to fake the diversity UW-Madison wish it had to the outright hostility Black students faced from their campus peers and leaders when they went on strike in 1969 to the practice of redlining as Madison grew throughout the 20th century. Some students didn’t realize how deep these systems would go in disenfranchising people of color, so it was hopefully a useful exercise in seeing the whole picture and how it impacts how we get along (or don’t) today in Madison.
I was thinking about that seminar discussion when my principal at West High School announced the next Monday that due to budget cuts throughout the district, we would have to let some people go. Like many decisions in MMSD, the choice was not strictly hers. Principals are given a workbook to determine allocation and make tough choices on personnel — but some choices are not theirs to make. Like, for instance, how many social workers we can have. This year we had three.
Three social workers for about 2,200 students.
According to the National Association of Social Workers and the ACLU, an equitable and properly-staffed school would have one social worker for every 250 students.
We have one for roughly every 733.
And next year, we’ll have one for every 1,100.
The cruel irony was that my principal’s announcement came on the same day everyone in student services and admin gathered around to celebrate our three social workers for “National School Social Work Week”. Seriously. They got pastries and “thank yous” that morning from us and eight hours later, one was told her services would no longer be needed at West next year. Thank you for your service and goodbye.
Anyone who’s been a cog in this system for over a year knows cuts, surpluses, and reallocations are normal. Families move, neighborhoods grow or recede, and the numbers which dictate funding will change for better or worse. But our student enrollment numbers haven’t dropped significantly at West.
But the number of student support staff will drop significantly if this allocation holds. The number of actual teachers in the classrooms will drop. The only number that is projected to rise is the average number of students in each classroom.
One colleague said she was asked to take 39 students in one of her sections. And maybe I’m too cynical, but I’m guessing 39 is not the largest number of students a teacher is being asked to teach next year. The max is supposed to be 30 and unless it’s a class like Choir or Orchestra, that number is still pushing it.
We know one of the most effective ways to address education equity gaps is smaller class sizes for more authentic relationships with students and providing better access to mental health specialists…since you know, racism is an honest-to-God public health crisis and needs mental health specialists to address the collective trauma of Black and Brown people in a systematically racist community.
So we’ll keep posting those articles about our racist and inequitable education system. We’ll render our garments and gnash our teeth over the injustice of it all. We’ll demand “disruption” to the school-to-prison pipeline and an “anti-racist” education system with “co-conspirators”, “abolitionists”, or other buzzwords.
But we don’t actually want to do it. Because that would require all us Madisonians to actually pay for it.
Change requires a lot of things from us: uncentering our own power so it can be centered for the most marginalized in our community. Deep reflection and a commitment to vigilance so we don’t slip into our worst tendencies. It requires us to be brave and speak truth to power when it’s always easier to accept the status quo for our own comfort.
But it also requires money. Money that we are too selfish to give and too cowardly to ask for. Money that would not only fund the third social worker West needs, but the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth social workers our children deserve at West.
Money that would give every Madison school enough social workers, counselors, psychologists, teachers, nurses, and staff so building leaders don’t have to passive-aggressively fight each other to position themselves for proper allocation.
Money to not just patch the holes in our decaying buildings, but to rebuild them for the children that haven’t even come into existence yet.
Money for enough staff so every child has the opportunity for authentic and meaningful relationships with adults because the room isn’t running out of desks.
Money to pay our education assistants, security staff, custodians, food service, and other hourly staffers (who are disproportionately people of color) so they can actually feel valued and respected for their time and skills.
But instead, we’re starving and fighting each other for the table scraps. We feel awkward about asking our neighbors for robust education funding, so we split our request into two referenda in the hopes that if one doesn’t pass the other does. We don’t ask for enough money to transform the schools, we ask for just enough to maintain the decrepit and archaic systems we have now out of hopes that the homeowners (who are overwhelmingly older and white) aren’t offended and don’t flee for Monona or Waunakee.
We argue over whether or not police officers should be in schools and not working towards systems where no one would feel the need to have police officers in the first place because every person’s needs are being met at school and in the community through support services and smaller class sizes that foster real relationships. If you removed the SRO from my school next year and kicked the money back towards a social worker, that would still leave my school under-resourced by six social workers. Under-resourced schools will inevitably lead to unmet needs at school and in the community, leading to our children making bad choices to meet their needs, leading to them entering a criminal justice system and (if they’re lucky) getting court-appointed county and city social workers who are also overworked and under-resourced. And leading to them still meeting their needs in dangerous ways out of a feeling of neglect from the adults dedicated to helping them.
And West is the privileged one in comparison to East, LaFollette, Memorial, Shabazz, and Capitol. I’m certain if we honestly assessed the needs for all of our schools, not one school is properly staffed and funded and it won’t be in the foreseeable future.
So why remove the SRO from any school if we’re not willing to actually get the supports our kids need and deserve? We’ll just return to the surveys, community panels, and indignant speeches about our community’s failure to serve our children. We’ll share updated versions of the same sad story in 2021, 2022, and into infinity. We’ll continue to pray for miracles in the forms of charity grants, “corporate partners” so they can ride it off their taxes that they barely pay in Wisconsin, and just enough taxpayer funding so we can survive.
Not thrive. Survive.
Which is also ironic because we love to pat ourselves on the back when we pay for Dr. Bettina Love to come to Madison over and over again to kick our collective asses about anti-racism. But we won’t actually follow the spirit of her message. I love it when she comes here to speak. I want to run through a damn brick wall afterwards. And what she says is 100% true. And we could bring her, or Dr. Ibram Kendi, or Dr. Robin DiAngelo to Madison all we want to discuss anti-racism in our book groups and and how we’re going to take a sledgehammer to the white supremacy in our culture and systems. But if we don’t actually put the money forward to do the work, then all we’re doing is funding more talk and less action.
But we like to talk about things we’ll never actually do ourselves as Madison citizens. We’ll get consultants like Neola to create our legal policies so we don’t get sued by conservative activists who want to out our trans children to their parents. We’ll bring consultants like the National Equity Project folx to tell us that things aren’t equitable here in Madison. We’ll pay $100,000 for special education consultants to tell district leaders things that any special education teacher would tell them if they stepped foot in one of our schools.
It would be easy to point the finger at one person or a particular entity. We could accuse building administration of being out of touch with what’s going on in the classrooms, hallways, and neighborhoods. We could say Central Office is bloated with specialists who aren’t in the buildings they serve. We could say the MMSD School Board is more interested in the big headlines than the smaller day-to-day needs of the schools. We could blame families, the students, or the teachers for not being perfect and making the right decision for themselves and other people every single moment of every single day.
But the reality is more complicated. The fault lies with us. All of us.
Some of us don’t demand for proper funding out of concerns that we’d look greedy or ungrateful.
Some of us don’t demand for proper funding out of concerns that we won’t survive our next election or shift in leadership if we ask for too much.
And some of us don’t want to give up what is necessary out of our own self-interest.
We are a citizenry where we are eager to share the failings of MMSD schools on Facebook or NextDoor but will hem and haw over properly funding services needed for thriving students. Like, I don’t know, $40 a year so we can have properly funded public transportation and roads that our kids need to get to school.
We are a citizenry that says we love our educators yet routinely create barriers that make them feel unwelcome in their communities, such as trying to restrict which bathroom they can go into if they identify as trans or hold on to petty parking rules so staffers have to scramble every two hours to move their cars because there’s only enough parking for 25% of the staff and the neighborhood association doesn’t want to permit permitted parking on their streets.
We are a citizenry that will send links around and say “DO BETTER” but when “BETTER” requires money, we look through everyone’s pockets but our own.
We are a citizenry that will demand that everyone supports our pet projects or initiatives and blanch when others ask us to do the same for them out of fears that it diminishes our own power, privilege, and influence.
We will loudly proclaim that we are “ANTI-RACIST” for everyone to see and hear and yet hesitate to engage in the quiet work which doesn’t guarantee us the recognition we so desperately crave.
This summer and fall, once the referenda request is officially sent out to the community, I will knock on doors. I will make phone calls. I will beg and plead for the additional property tax money. But I will do so knowing that it’s for surviving, not thriving.
Because unless we’re talking changing our actions towards anti-racist work as an unfunded mandate or one that can be relieved with consultants, guest speakers, and GoFundMe or DonorsChoose fundraisers, we will always be a racist community scratching our heads on why our racist systems continue to produce racist outcomes.
Maybe that’s what our community actually wants.
But let’s not pretend we’re “anti-racist” if we don’t have the courage to back it up with our wallets.
This article was originally published here.