I am the product of the Iowa public schools. I went to Willard Elementary on the east side of Des Moines, near the Iowa State Fairgrounds, along with my sister in the 1970s. It was a mixed school and we had middle class kids, poor kids, and special education courses and classes for kids who needed extra attention and smaller class sizes for various reasons. There was a smattering of kids of color, myself included, but predominantly poor white kids went to Willard Elementary. I remember we were among the better-off kids in our school. I was class conscious at a very early age, coming from a large family with varying degrees of education and success in achieving the American Dream.
Willard Elementary was old and beautiful. I remember it had large sweeping staircases, a theater and auditorium with real velvet curtains, a gym, a big playground, and a field that abutted railroad tracks. Occasionally we would see “hobos,” as we called them back then; once one of the kids from the special education classes organized us in the cafeteria to collect food for one of the transients. The young boy was an African American student and the “hobo” was an elderly white man. I remember him passing a milk carton through the tall wire fence at the back of our playground field. There was no fear of the transient, just a desire to help, and it was no big deal. I don’t recall that we ever mentioned it to a teacher or that any of us were afraid; children were given more free range then.
We had good teachers and were rigorously taught the basics: reading, writing, language, and math. We had an art teacher on occasion, who would come to our class, but we had a well-stocked library and I fondly remember going there with my class and checking out books on evolution. It was a big day when the RIF (“Reading Is Fun”) van would come to the school and we all got to pick out a free book to take home. My sister and I had plenty of our own books, and went to the public library regularly, but this was not the case for some of my classmates. I could tell some of them had wood burning stoves in their homes, because of how their clothes smelled. I knew some of them were poor and underfed even at my young age.
We went to school together, most of us for seven years––a long time in kid years.
My public school experience gave me empathy and the idea that my experience was not mirrored in others’ home lives. It taught me how to interact with people from all stations of life, which served me well as I went on to junior high and high school at Amos Hiatt Middle School and East High School, respectively. It is only in my later years that I realized I went to one of the biggest high schools in Iowa. East High School was founded in 1861. Its motto is “for the service of humanity.”
By the time I entered seventh grade I was reading and comprehending at the level of a college graduate according to the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. Some of this was due to my home life, but some of that success was based on my experience in the Des Moines Public School system. When I ask my parents, my father feels that his public education in Newton, Iowa served him well in the Navy, at the University of Iowa, and in the professional world.
I don’t think my experience is unique. I think many people, when questioned, would say this or that class or teacher prepared them well for what would come next in their life. They may say it was an extracurricular program like band, music, theater, or track that taught them discipline and how to master a craft. The public school system works when it is well funded and teachers have reasonable class sizes and enough books and desks and chairs for their students.
Our democracy has been built on the public school system enshrined in our constitution. A functioning democracy requires an educated citizenry. It does not exist in order to create wealth for people who are already incredibly wealthy and who have no need for public education because their kids go to private schools. No one should be making ungodly amounts of money by squeezing the public school system until it cracks so that they can privatize and funnel public funds to their friends and contacts in high places. It is unconscionable, and it is happening right now.
Funding for the military is never questioned; funding education is a constant battleground.
We cannot keep defunding the public school systems in this country without consequences, then swooping up those same starved schools because they are not working and handing them over to private operators so a few can make money off our children’s education needs.
Private companies’ number-one reason for existing is to make money for their shareholders, not the common good, and certainly not to provide kids with a good education. This battle has been brewing for years. The desire to privatize everything, from public education to social security, is all part of the same plan to dismantle anything public and privatize it, from public parks to our drinking water.
We must stand up for free quality public education for everyone, and adequate funding too, whether in a town, city, or rural area. Educating children––white, black, brown, ESL (English as a Second Language) learners, and poor and middle class children––should be a priority for everyone. Our future is in their hands.
Public school teachers deserve our support. Our children can’t wait for “someday.” Today is the day we must push our legislators and representatives to stop the dismantling of our public school system. We voted them in, and we can vote them out. This is just some of what I learned during my public school years.
Angie Trudell Vasquez is a Milwaukee-based poet and activist.
Image credit: The author and her sister as elementary school students, provided by author