Wednesday, December 22, 2010

"Why should I have to pay for the education of those people?"

On Monday, I posted on the Dream Act. Some people thought that I was beginning to launch a crusade for the Dream Act, but that was not my purpose. Actually, my purpose was to discuss a deeper issue about our attitude as a community towards educating people who don't look like us...people of different races, religions or appearances.

Last week, the school board held a public hearing on a one year increase in property taxes, a proposal which I voted against. During that public hearing, a citizen told us that he was troubled by raising taxes to pay for the education of Somali immigrants. Several people in the audience nodded knowingly with approval. Why should WE have to pay taxes to educate THEM. My no-vote had nothing to do with the view that we shouldn't have to pay for the education of people who don't look like us. My issue was that the tax, even though for just one year, wasn't accompanied by a plan to keep costs in check and to keep the district sustainable. My vote was about exhaustion from the constant cycle of cuts, taxes and endless bargaining, that never seem to resolve themselves into a sustainability plan from the State, which under our Constitution has the central responsibility for public education finance.

I wanted here to write a bit about this question of US paying for THEM. In doing that, I want to be crystal clear, as a no-vote, I'm certainly not suggesting that everybody who is against taxes is motivated by this question of whether the kids who will benefit include some people who are different from the rest of us. Most of the people in our community reject that point of view. But just as surely, I know that there are folks in our community who agree with the fellow who came to the podium and complained that we taxpayers shouldn't have to pay for certain immigrants. And it is to them, and about them, that this post is directed.

Let's begin with the central fact that the school district, the school board, and the children who go to our schools, had absolutely nothing to do with the decision to open our community to immigrants. That decision was made by the Governor, the State Department under the Bush Administration, and a variety of community leaders. Nonetheless, from time to time, a citizen points his finger at me and seems to blame me as a school board member for his anger at immigration and immigrants. Listen. As a school district, we welcome every student who walks in our doors, because we are in the business of educating all children. We believe that a community that leaves some of its children uneducated is a community that is in the process of destroying itself.

A public school district educates all children, and we are proud of that. If you think about it, there's something a little bit screwy about suggesting that we shouldn't be willing to pay for a world class education for all of our students, simply because we don't identify with some of them. Who is harmed, really, when you refuse to pay for the education of your children, neighbors children and grandchildren, because you have a problem with the race or religion of some of our students. . If this conversation makes you uncomfortable, I apologize, but there it is. We need to face the fact that all of the kids who go to our school district are children of God, and they all deserve a great education, even if they look or seem differently.

Some sociologists claim that when a homogeneous community (all white, all Lutheran, all Christian, all German, or choose your favorite here) experiences an influx of "outsiders," that the community suffers a crisis in community cohesion that can be very destructive of the long term resilience of that community. If a new group enters the community, the "old-timers" immediately begin to discuss their differences, and start to question whether the newcomers are legitimate members of the community. It happened when Irish Catholic immigrants arrived in predominately Protestant communities. It happened when German Catholics migrated into predominantly Scandinavian communities here in Minnesota. It can happen when Hispanic or blacks migrate into an all-white community. When a community struggles with its differences, it is struggling for its soul. Will we maintain our sense of community or lose it?

This idea, that the newcomers don't deserve the community benefits of education and other services to the same extent as the old-timers is a common topic of community conversation in many communities. If that conversation goes in the wrong direction, the entire community may choose to punish itself, by refusing to support education, municipal infrastructure, and other community assets, in a way that causes the majority community to harm itself, to avoid benefiting the minority community.

And this is the central question that we need to come to grips with as a community: are we going to believe in ourselves as a community as we become more diverse, or are we going to punish ourselves, all of us, because some of us don't want to support those of us who don't look like us.

If you are angry that Governor Pawlenty -- or George Bush, or whoever--volunteered Minnesota and St. Cloud to receive immigrants, do you really want to take that anger out on yourself, your children and grandchildren and the entire community? Or, do you want a community that insists that all children who live here are going to leave high school well educated, ready to work and support themselves and make a contribution to the community? Do you see those immigrants as a reason to punish the entire community because, well I'll be darned if I'm going to support education for "them." Or, are we going to find a way to pull this community together and make sure that people who come from a very different place and history, are challenged to understand our history, our language, our literature, and our civic tradition.

Which vision of our community is going to stand us in greater stead? The one that leaves children uneducated or one that insists that all of our young people do well?

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