Why Don’t People Vote for Public Education?

She’s a longtime friend, although we haven’t seen each other face to face in years. She lives in a very rural part of my (geographically large) state. She’s a picture-sharing, hands-on grandmother and a talented gardener. And–she’s a creative, award-winning veteran teacher, respected by generations of kids and parents in her remote school district. I wish I had a dollar for every time someone has praised her patience, skill and dedication in the classroom.

Yesterday, this woman, vocal advocate of second chances for students, expressing gratitude and innovative math, was infuriated. Not only did a school bond issue go down in flames on Tuesday, the same citizens in her town enthusiastically voted to approve recreational marijuana use.

She let off more than a little steam online and was uncharacteristically bitter.  It wasn’t just about the asbestos in the walls, laughably old technology and sketchy outdated heating systems. (Think: Michigan winters, 125+ inches of snow. Seriously.)

It was about what her students perceive when they enter that building: this is what my community thinks is ‘good enough’ for me and my classmates.

More than 100 comments bloomed, from sympathetic friends across the country and right there in her hometown. Much of it was commiserating about how little the citizenry cares for public education. There were dozens of thank-yous from parents and students, testifying to her proficiency in teaching, patience and kindness, and there was plenty of anger over misplaced values. Short-term personal gratification ahead of better prospects for the next generation, that kind of thing.

She was right to be furious.

In Michigan, a state where per-pupil funding is not based on property taxes but is calculated by a unique –notice I didn’t say ‘fair’ or ‘effective’–formula developed in the 1990s, the only say voters have in determining how much of their tax contribution goes to schools is around bond issues. Voters can say yes to updating schools or building new ones. Bricks and mortar stuff—but not salaries or materials, operating expenses.

It’s ironic, this ability to vote on crumbling facilities—the new roof necessary because of ice dams or the toxic plume behind the bus garage—while all the dazzling stuff that the Tony Wagners of the world think will transform learning and make kids ready for the 21st century is not fundable by taxpayer voting.

And I’m not referring just to computers and other digital technologies (although my friend lives in a place where a high-speed connection and feature-loaded personal devices are by no means a given).  I’m talking about small, custom-tailored classes, personnel capable of dealing with personalized learning needs, and constantly updated materials. It all costs money, something that isn’t immediately obvious in the glossy pictures of ‘21st century’ high school students in their coffee-shop learning pods.

My friend has done more than the average teacher to personalize her practice and facilitate an unsexy version of 21st century learning. She has been recognized for innovative use of technology (vitally important in distance learning), but it’s way more than that. She feeds kids (literally and metaphorically) and clothes them and loves them as her own. And she worries about what they’re learning and how it impacts their future. She stays current. She hasn’t given up.

Naturally, there were comments about people in this underemployed area being unable to feed their families. That’s not just blowing smoke (of any flavor). Rural poverty is typical in this part of Michigan. And voting against taxation is a time-honored tradition in Red America, even if it means your kid attends a school where the drinking water isn’t safe, like this one.

I’ve heard parents say, repeatedly, that they can’t afford to say yes to even a slight increase. And I know the answer isn’t in scolding them for their purchasing choices or other financial values. We have lost our middle class and our working-class folks aren’t keeping up, economically. What we need, really, is a higher minimum wage and better jobs, the kind that make it possible to stretch a household budget and invest in your community.

It’s a systemic, deep-rooted problem. And it’s complicated by the fact that many ‘no’ voters feel powerless about so many things—they don’t control the cost of gas or groceries, they can’t find a new job, but they can say no to a bond issue. They can rationalize it by saying kids ‘don’t need’ fancy new amenities.

You can understand why charter schools, put up quickly and initially funded by for-profit CMOs, have curb appeal in rural areas.

The saddest comment came from a woman who noted that the school was the ‘beating heart’ of this tiny town. That, I think, is what this comes down to. We have lost our appreciation for place-based education, for having a common purpose of making things better for the next generation. We’ve been encouraged to focus on ourselves.

We have political role models whose greatest accomplishments have come from cheating others, on full display this week.

All politics are local—and there’s nothing more local than a school bond issue. I’m glad my friend shared her disappointment and resentment, because she lives there, too, and is part of the community. Today was Parent-Teacher conference day, and she posted a cheery message about how important it is to know more about her students. This is what democracy looks like–saying your piece, then moving ahead. It’s what we did on Tuesday.

She’ll survive. I have my doubts about public education.sad-505857_960_720



  1. Hi Nancy,

    Thanks for this piece. Plenty of good lines in here that help shape and define what is happening.

    Our town will be having a referendum soon. I just sat in the barn with two local farmers who have heard the impending news. They both are for education, and helping kids, but money is wasted at all levels, so they’ll both be voting “no.” And when I hear how much they pay in property taxes, I get it.

    They both say there are too many administrators. What they don’t appreciate is that the Republican legislators they keep electing add “accountability” measures that require these administrators. They both have supported state legislators cutting welfare. Now the kids coming to my school bring the problems associated with poverty requiring more interventions. They both have elected officials who have channeled money away from public schools to support “for-profit” charters and vouchers. The list goes on. I get they pay too much in taxes. What I don’t think most realize is they’re electing officials who are costing them, not saving them, money.

    In the book Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, a doctor is medicating a patient to save his life. As the story unfolds, the patient worsens, and we realize the doctor has actually been poisoning the patient, causing the symptoms, in order to kill and rob him.

    So it goes with education. Just dismantling education would cause and outcry just as the doctor murdering his victim would. So legislators are poisoning public education slowly. As it struggles, they are quick to point out they have the cures. And our constituents keep swallowing their poison.



  2. ‘What I don’t think most realize is they’re electing officials who are costing them, not saving them, money.’

    Bingo. Veteran teachers are the best observers of the impact policy has on classrooms–what gets highlighted (computer-delivered test prep) and what gets cut (music, art, social studies). In some ways, I root for sports programs to succeed (even though they’re totally not my thing), because they bring the community together, at school.

    Thanks. Great comment. I read ‘Cloud Atlas,’ too and would put it on my all-time TopTen list.



  3. Thanks, Nancy, for this post. I feel for our mutual friend and empathize with (temporary) despair. If educators didn’t support each other, too many of us feel like we would have no one in our corners.



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