Dear Governor Ducey,
The protest imperative “Defund the Police” engenders a lot of response. President-elect Joe Biden tiptoes around the phrase, asking for dialogue and reform. President Obama admonishes activists for calling for such extreme action. Friends of mine who work for police reform are nervous—We’ve done so much work to teach police to handle domestic violence and mental health crises, they say. Don’t get the police thinking of it as an us (police) versus them (social workers, therapists, outreach groups, community action members) situation.
Of course, when they started yelling, “Defund the schools,” neither Obama nor Biden complained. That’s probably because it was before their time in the limelight and no one was shouting, “Defund the schools.” Defunding the schools happened behind closed doors—quietly. People like you, dear governor, did not want to upend a caste system so inchoately built on a false belief in white supremacy. After Brown v. Board of Education, white communities pushed back on the ideas of integration. White flight from cities and resistance to busing students into more schools to distribute funding more fairly was just the first step. Then, people started comparing math scores to students in China. Ronald Reagan types put the bug in citizens’ ears— If schools aren’t doing well, why are we giving them so much money? Pity the taxpayers, he said. Movies like Lean on Me where Morgan Freeman had to lock the kids inside the school for safety and that one with Michelle Pfeiffer where she plays the white savior role in a leather jacket confirmed that schools in the city had rotted and schools in the suburbs could learn to manage with less. Classrooms got bigger. Teachers got fired if their students didn’t pass standardized tests. Parents choosing schools for their children got one look at the defunded bathrooms and looked for the nearest charter school.
I wouldn’t argue against charter schools if everyone went to a charter school. If all schools were like charters, that would be fine with me, except, of course, they’d have to let everyone in and they’d have to bus students and provide healthy lunches. What is unjust about charter schools is that not everyone can go. First you have to know how to apply and how to tailor your application to suit the kind of school. Then parents have to have the kind of jobs where they can drive their kid to school and home from school and time and resources to pack them a lunch. But of course, with the funding schools have, we can’t afford all kids to go to charter schools. Not all kids can have new buildings and nice bathrooms. If all kids went to charter schools, we would have the education system that our kids deserve and we wouldn’t have to call them charter schools—just schools with small class sizes, two teachers per class, a park to play in (even for high schoolers) and a library as big as the sky.
I listen to my son Max’s 5th grade class every morning. For some reason both he and Zoe, who is in 10th grade, like to sit in the kitchen and go to Zoom school right by each other, listening to competing voices that are already competing for attention from online students who have plenty of home-style distractions like snacks and Fortnite and basketballs. Max’s teacher has incredible patience. She checks in with each student every day. She tailors breakout rooms for every student’s progress. She has help from the teacher specialists and the librarian to lead these break out rooms—some for reading, some for math. Once in a while, she asks parents to come in to lead the break-out rooms. The times I visited, I realized how much individual attention Max’s teacher gives the students—and how much the students need. On days when no specialists or aides or librarians or parents can visit the class, I hear every student calling out for her. She responds to each of them with such empathy and patience. Every student gets a fair amount of her time—but imagine what a world it would be if a fair amount of time was twice as long and Max’s teacher could run her whole class like a single break out room. Somehow, I think we could keep up with China, dispense with standardized tests and solve the problem of defunding the police—because we’d be on our way to creating a fair society where the police wouldn’t assume multiple roles.
Nicole Walker is a professor at Northern Arizona University, and is the author of Quench Your Thirst with Salt and a collection of poems, This Noisy Egg. She edited, with Margot Singer, Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction, and is the recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment from the Arts. The thoughts expressed here are hers alone and not necessarily those of her employer. For more letters, visit www.nikwalk.blogspot.com.