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Pencils and Monster Trucks

Jennifer ThomasI have seen a lot of Facebook and other internet traffic about the effects of AB 1575, the legislation that requires that public education in California be free, completely free.

As a result of a lawsuit by the ACLU, greater enforcement measures may be taken to ensure that schools do not ask students to pay for things that are required as part of an educational activity. That covers everything from graphing calculators in math to uniforms for cheerleaders to summer reading requirements in English.

Students can still be asked to pay for a lot of things — food at school, events like dances and plays, and sporting events outside the school day. They will still have to pay for losing or damaging district property. Students will not be prevented from participating in voluntary fundraisers, so the pizza cards and coupon books I have purchased each year to help pay for uniforms for various sports teams will still be tucked neatly into my wallet, and I will continue to forget about my discounts.

The bill makes sense, and the shocking humiliation of the student plaintiffs in the lawsuit would make any San José Unified teacher cringe; however, there are definitely some confusing aspects. One school district wasn’t sure if the lawsuit said that teachers couldn’t tell families about scholarships available for things like field trips, lest they single out some families and perpetrate the kind of embarrassment that the lawsuit was meant to end. Some teachers like students to bring particular kinds of notebooks for taking notes, or to purchase a binder for their class. That also violates the law, believe it or not.  The argument goes that public education is meant to be free. Period. If it costs money, no matter how nominal, it’s not free. If a supply or an activity is so important that it is required, than the district or the site needs to pay for it.

What I was surprised by the other day was my colleagues who wanted to make this about pencils. A few were annoyed, understandably, because the ambiguity in the law makes it seem as though a teacher could not expect or instruct kids to bring pencil and paper with them to school. I agree, the law most certainly would forbid that. I also agree: that’s silly.

What struck me, though, is how quickly some of my colleagues turned to criticism of parents because their children didn’t come to school with a pencils. They pointed out that students often have money for cell phones or big screen TVs (how they know this, I do not know), late model cars, or nice clothes, but don’t have money for pencils.

Personally, I have never had a student come to me and say that they couldn’t afford a pencil. I have never had a student come to me and say they couldn’t afford binder paper. They did often appear sheepish or embarrassed — or sometimes belligerent — but no one ever said, “I paid my Verizon bill, downloaded Fruit Ninja, and streamed four hours of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and now I don’t have a Dixon-Ticonderoga for your class, Mrs. Thomas. So give me one, or I am going to sue.” I’ve also called parents whose students were perpetually unprepared, and they were extremely embarrassed. Never once did I hear, “Well, I was going to go to the Dollar Tree, but it was between pencils for the kids and a payment on my monster truck, and the truck won out.”

More often than not, my pencil-less 9th graders were just as goofy as I was in 9th grade (and 10th, and 11th, and most of 12th). Pencils broken at the bottom of my backpack, binder paper still wrapped in the plastic sleeve it came in when my mom bought if for me, but unfortunately squished under the banana I also forgot was in there.

(Full disclosure: I went to a meeting the other day only to discover that I had left my meticulously organized pen case at the office. Along with my notepad. I stole a pen from Jason Willis and wrote all my notes on the back of an envelope to stave off embarrassment.)

So let’s not make this about pencils. If my classroom lived and died on who had a pencil, I’d have been a whole lot grumpier. If I used pencils or supplies to teach my 13-year-olds responsibility, I’d have been banging my head against a brick wall. Instead, I had giant packs of pencil for which I encouraged kids to make a donation of  $.10 if they could, and to drop another $.10 for a classmate if they could. More often than not, they did. I also requested supplies through donorschoose.org and the PTSA.

Aim your frustration exactly where it belongs: budget cuts from the state of California that have slashed your allocation of discretionary spending for much needed items in the classroom. Pencils aren’t even the tip of the iceberg.


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