Watch Out Wisconsin: One Woman's Journey from Parent to Activist
This guest blog post is from Jasmine Alinder, a parent organizer in WI who has done invaluable work defending public education in her state. Here, she offers a powerful, personal perspective on the situation in Milwaukee and an inspiring look at the work she has done in her local community.
My call to action came on February 16, 2011. I joined a couple hundred other parents and children at my daughter's bi-lingual elementary school to meet the president of our district's school board. We were all eager to talk with him about our school's treasures, especially our art teacher and our librarian, as every year those positions were the most likely to be cut. We wanted to show him how much these teachers mattered to our kids and our school culture. I remember our PTA leader giving an interview to a local news affiliate and just the thought of losing Ms. Sue or Ms. Mayra brought her to tears. But instead of the exchange I was expecting, the school board director came to deliver shocking news. He had just heard reports that our newly elected Governor was promising cuts to public education that would be historic in their size and impact. Instead of worrying about a teacher, he told us that he wasn't sure if our district let alone our school would survive. There were audible gasps in the gym. I felt shell-shocked.
My world changed dramatically that night. I had been an attentive but not really involved parent. The idea that Milwaukee Public Schools, the largest district in the state, with the highest number of kids in poverty and the highest percentage of kids of color, would be made to shoulder the costs of the economic downturn made me angry and turned me into a public education activist. Over the next year I banned together with other parents to form a group called I Love My Public School. We put up a website to keep parents informed about the proposed budget, we organized a march in support of public education, we called a district-wide parents meeting, and we helped parents testify in front of legislative committees. We strengthened a voice that had been largely absent and ignored.
For one of our actions, the "Dear Legislators" campaign, we asked parents from across the district to write letters talking about how much their schools meant to them and how much funding cuts would hurt their children. We emailed those letters to every legislator in the state. We received few replies, but one GOP state representative from a small town west of Milwaukee did write back. In his response, he described public education as a "social welfare agency" and a jobs creator for public sector unions. I realized then that the terms of the fight were different than I had first thought. I believe that public education is the backbone of our Democracy and understood that to be a widely-held, non-partisan tenet. With that letter, I now saw that the very survival of public education was at stake.
Despite our hard work, the budget passed and K-12 public education funding has been slashed by $1.6 billion over this year and the next. The impact across the state has been harsh. Seventy-three percent of districts cut teachers this year, with more cuts projected for next year. At my daughter's school, we lost our art teacher, and several other classroom teachers. But we have gained something. Realizing that the fight to save public education was not a one-budget battle, we decided that we needed to create a stable, sustainable organization to harness that public school parent voice. Over the last several months, we worked to incorporate the only Wisconsin chapter of the national organization Parents for Public Schools. In a few weeks PPS-MKE will be engaging in strategic planning and in the fall we will launch publicly. Watch out Milwaukee, watch out Wisconsin. Public school parents are just getting started. We're everywhere. And we're determined to do whatever we can to protect every child's right to a high quality public education.
You can reach Jasmine Alinder at firstname.lastname@example.org.