Not Funding Schools or Paying Teachers? That’s a ‘You Problem’, Right?

In the school district next to mine—and where I live, all the schools are small and rural—there was an unpaid collective lunch debt in June. As a goodwill gesture, a local craft brewery paid off the debt, $2700, so all the students in Suttons Bay will start the year with a clean slate. There are about 525 kids, PK-12, in the district and roughly half of them meet qualifications for free or reduced lunch.

According to Realtor.Com, the median price of homes for sale in Suttons Bay is $454,000.

You can get a pretty nice house for $450K, almost anywhere in the Midwest. So why are there so many kids on free and reduced lunch in the school district? You can get a hint by noting that the young man who suggested The Mitten Brewing Company pay off students’ lunch debt is both bartender at The Mitten and substitute teacher in Suttons Bay.

There’s poverty in paradise, as Bridge Magazine revealed in a startling series of articles. There are people supporting families on three or four patched-together jobs, often in industries serving the older, wealthier residents in those gorgeous lakefront homes. Lots of those hard-working people have college degrees—the thing that was supposed to keep them ahead of the pack—and student loans.

You could see this as repellent conservative motormouth Ben Shapiro does:

Well, the fact is if you had to work more than one job to have a roof over your head or food on the table, you probably shouldn’t have taken the job that’s not paying you enough. That’d be a you problem.

Does Ben Shapiro think that teachers in Suttons Bay (where the average pay is just north of $50K) have a You problem by accepting a job where they are willing to sacrifice personal well-being in order to teach children? Since the national average pay for teachers is about $60K, and teachers in MS, WV and OK are working for much, much less—does that mean that starry-eyed public school teachers shouldn’t take these shitty jobs, period?

Reading comments on the article about The Mitten paying off the lunch debt, it’s easy to understand that our current local social milieu is not terribly compassionate when it comes to feeding kids a nutritious meal while they’re at school. While the Suttons Bay district feeds everyone, whether they have money or not, commenters seemed to feel that lunch debts were most definitely a You problem—or, rather, a Them problem, with Them being irresponsible seven-year old freeloaders sucking up hot dogs, beans and canned peaches. Not to mention milk.

Pay off their debt now, and they’ll just expect you to do it next year! And slide me another $7 craft beer, OK?

It’s confusing, sorting through the right way to think about this. There are nearby districts that give every child a free breakfast and lunch, rather than try to sort through paperwork poverty credentials or label students. Good for them. And what about teachers who essentially beg for the auxiliary supplies that will make their classrooms more homelike, fun and effective, through #clearthelist or Donors Choose?

Do we hold out until the district gives us everything we want or need? Or do we patch together three or four supplementary strategies to build an engaging teaching practice and a comfortable classroom, relying on our second job to make the car payment for the long commute, when housing in our price range is not available?

Well. I generally find that educators who righteously stand on principle—i.e., the public should pay for public education—are teaching in districts that are relatively well off, and in subjects that are tested and therefore not likely to be eliminated in the next round of budget cuts.

I spent 30 years teaching instrumental music in a suburban school. I did fund-raising every single one of those years to keep the program alive and flourishing. With the help of legions of enthusiastic parents, we bought instruments and music and sent students on out-of-state and international travel experiences. The program was threatened every time there was a budget shortfall, but it never died, because of parent support.

Should public schools pay for everything, from French toast sticks to beakers for the chemistry lab? Unequivocally. Should all public-school teachers make $60K, minimum? Absolutely.

The question is what to do until that happens—and who suffers when the charity and fund-raising end.

We know the answer to that. And we know who will take the long-term, $15/hour substitute positions in districts that can’t find enough teachers.

It’s an Us problem. All of us.


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