MICHIGAN — Remember going to your high school football game on a Friday night? Odds are, one of your teachers was coaching the team. Another might be in the stands with their family. Another would wear a plumed hat and conduct the marching band at halftime.
Now imagine a Friday night football game without your teachers. Families in the stands whisper about one another, pointing fingers at grandparents wearing masks. In the concessions booth, no one’s raising money for a school trip – it’s just a guy selling popcorn.
After two years of disinformation schemes, the once-strong bonds between families and schools are in crisis. Amanda Sterling* is living this scary reality. She’s a high school English teacher who grew up in Lansing and has spent the last two decades teaching in a mid-Michigan community — a place she has long loved.
As part of our Q&A series on Michigan’s public education system, we spoke to Sterling about her experiences. We’ll post four of her answers each morning for the next few days. This is the last in the series; for the first, click here. For the second, click here.
*Amanda Sterling is a pseudonym. We have verified the teacher’s true identity and employment status, but are granting her request for anonymity so that she may speak freely without fear of retribution or reprisal.
1 – There’s an effort in Michigan, backed by Betsy DeVos, to take public dollars and essentially give them to private schools to cover the cost of tuition for parents who send their kids to private schools. What are your thoughts on it?
Definitely aware of it and trying to make others aware of it. This proposal is so damaging because of course it wouldn’t go on the ballot. It would be voted on by the Republican majority in the Michigan legislature and become immediate law and it would mean that millions of dollars—and billions over the years—would be siphoned out of public school coffers, and we can’t afford to lose that money.
Public schools are being constantly asked now more than ever to do more with less, and we have not kept up with inflation. Schools need every dollar. Additionally, you hear a lot in the news about teachers’ salaries not keeping up with their similarly educated peers in other fields, which is leading to our loss of teachers and our teacher shortage. The loss of funds will absolutely weaken public schools.
2 – Some education advocates have said these efforts could ultimately lead to the dismantling of public schools. Do you think communities would suffer if public schools cease to exist?
Absolutely. It would widen the wealth gap — the gap between the haves and the have nots — because people who could afford to would move to a location where there was still a strong, functioning public school or they would of course pay to send their child to a private school, or they would have the resources to enter a lottery for that upstart charter school that came in to fill the gap in the absence of the public school.
But the families that can’t afford a private school or don’t have the resources to drive their child across town to a different school, they would be the ones that would be suffering. And given time, then we have underclass and an overclass and that certainly isn’t healthy for any functioning democracy.
3 – What is a positive vision for the future of public schools in your community? What do you want to see?
Our schools are doing amazing things on a shoestring budget, but what schools need are more people. We need more teachers to lower class sizes. We need more paraprofessionals to assist teachers in those reading interventions and those math interventions and more people on the bus and on the playground and in the cafeteria — more eyes monitoring our students and making sure that they are happy and healthy and safe.
We need more counselors, social workers, and staff psychologists. We need more administrators who can help. Our administrators wear too many hats.
We need more caring, highly educated adults in our schools and we need them paid at a level that keeps them stable and able to continue working in the same district — especially for our parapros, who are completely underpaid for the jobs that they do.
Our kids are great. Our school buildings for the most part are functional and adequate, but what we need are people and people cost money. The largest part of a school’s budget is staff salaries and when you have to cut money, you have to cut staff.
My vision for a functioning school is just a wrap-around care — a community wrapping around our students that need so much now, especially post-pandemic in this new world that we are in. I want more caring adults in their lives getting to know them and intervening when there’s problems.
4 – What do you think is the purpose of public education, or what should it be?
It was the goal of our founding fathers and of a functioning democracy that citizens should be able to read for themselves, think for themselves, and therefore vote for themselves, and public education is the vehicle where that happens. Public education is what ensures a strong democracy and that is what the point of public schools should be — to educate equally all students and provide the same opportunity for all students.
That is my vision for public school going forward; that we equalize the opportunity and that schools get equitable funding — not equal, but equitable funding — so that those with less have more to help even the playing field that is so uneven right now, in in this day and age.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.