True Confessions of a PTA Mom: 21st Century Kindergarten through the Eyes of a 1970s Kindergartener

By Kimberly Burkett
Originally Published: September 10, 2012

I survived! Jackson survived! And the two of us didn’t seem to give my husband any new gray hairs during my son’s first weeks of kindergarten.

We are now two-week veterans of the system. Jackson has comfortably settled into his new routine and enjoys going to school each day. I’m getting used to the multitude of papers that come home in his folder for signature every night. Between picture forms, fundraising forms, calendars, campus forms, classroom forms, and district forms, it seems the paperwork rivals what I completed when I purchased my home. My educator husband has reached a level of comfort with the school, principal, and Jackson’s kindergarten teacher (all received a thumbs-up from Dr. Burkett – whew!). Jackson has made new friends, learned to find his way to class all by himself, and has figured out how to navigate the lunch line. (Ensuring he orders a side of veggies and fruit with his lunch instead of two chocolate milks is another story – baby steps, though.)

How Things Have Changed!

Watching his joy, excitement, and pride during these important first weeks has been heartwarming. It made me recall my first days of kindergarten, and I realized just how much has changed. I attended kindergarten in suburban Fort Lauderdale, Florida in the 1970s. I remember my first week of kindergarten in Mr. Zimmerman’s class. I remember being dropped off out of the back of my mother’s Chevy Vega station wagon with the 1970s-cool hounds tooth interior. Child safety seats? Come on, we were tough in the 70s (and apparently not very bright)! I remember listening to Debby Boone bellow “You Light up My Life” on the way to school. I remember playing with my Pet Rock at lunch and not understanding why it wouldn’t do the tricks that were shown in the instruction manual. (Clearly irony was as lost on five-year-olds in the 70s as it is today.)

We still took naps in kindergarten. We made crafts. We ate glue. We kissed our teacher goodbye every afternoon. (My husband finds that part creepy, but 1970s kindergarteners seemed to like it.) We didn’t have nifty folders that we brought home each night to keep our parents informed. We didn’t have color-coded behavior boards that charted our choices – good and bad. Technology in the classroom? Hey, we were still using rotary dial phones and Atari 2600 gaming systems was only to be introduced that very year.

But Some Things Stay The Same…

While so much has changed, there is one aspect of my 1970s kindergarten experience that is very similar to Jackson’s 21st century kindergarten experience. We both started our educational journeys in times of absolute economic misery. Times were tough when I was in elementary school, with the economy still reeling from the 1973 oil crisis. I vaguely recall my parents discussing oil shortages and the new 55-mph speed limit on highways (all that meant to 70s kindergarten-me was it took us longer to drive to Disney World). Another oil shock in 1979 didn’t help. Inflation went up. Unemployment went up. The misery index was at its all-time high the year I began kindergarten. By the time I was finishing elementary school, the unemployment rate was 10.8%. But here’s the critical difference between my 1970s kindergarten and my son’s modern kindergarten – despite similar, sustained economic challenges of the time, somehow the state still funded my education.

Tales My Mother Never Told…

In the 1970s my mother didn’t have to write to her governor and state representatives to ask why they didn’t fund student enrollment growth (i.e. new students) for the first time since World War II.

I did! Texas didn’t fund Jackson’s education this year. Per the state budget passed by the 82nd legislature and signed by Governor Rick Perry in 2011, he doesn’t exist in the eyes of Texas. He is one of the 160,000 new students to Texas that were not funded. If you’re the parent of a kindergartener or first grader or new to the state of Texas, your child was blatantly ignored by lawmakers. (Don’t worry; they’ll still accept your taxes, though.) Now don’t snicker parents of older children, those 160,000 new students still have to be educated and they are sucking your kids’ funding dry. Are you offended yet? By the way, next year’s funding outlook doesn’t look very good either as lawmakers sign pledges and compacts to everybody but the children of Texas.

My mother didn’t have to supply reams of copy paper to my school because their enrollment doubled, but the funding stayed the same.

I did! Jackson’s school has increased enrollment from 450 students to more than 900 students, but because of all of those unfunded children (see above) the school’s state funding has stayed the same.

My mother didn’t have to march on the state capitol because the state was planning to cut education funding by $5.4 billion while their rainy day piggy bank remained full.

I did! Texas tried to hide its structural tax deficit behind the economic recession and used it as a poor excuse to defund schools. I have to wonder, with Texas’ “economic miracle,” and increased tax revenue rolling in again, will the 83rd legislature restore that funding in 2013? (Warning: snarky, pissed-off PTA Mom commentary ahead – don’t hold your breath; see mention of pledges and compacts above.)

In the 1970s we were faced with economic hardships that challenged state budgets just as much as they do today. What was the response in Florida in the 1970s? A citizen-led committee appointed by Florida’s governor recommended a program, the Florida Education Finance Program (FEFP) created in 1977, to recommit the state to funding education appropriate to the needs of Florida students. What is the response in 21st century Texas? Governor Perry and lawmakers pretended my son and 159,999 of his new school friends don’t exist.

Now before I tweak any more Texas egos, let me assure you that things weren’t perfect in my 1970s kindergarten. Putting down my rose-colored glasses, I recall that our class sizes were pretty large. Florida was late to the realization that education is better in smaller settings and didn’t pass a class size amendment until 2002 against the wishes of then Governor Jeb Bush. Texas recognized this issue in 1995, although a record number of districts have recently requested and received waivers due to economic difficulties from the last budget. In retrospect, I attended some schools that were sorely over-crowded. Not every teacher I had was Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. In fact, some more closely resembled Cameron Diaz in Bad Teacher. We had our share of problems. But the difference between then and now was commitment!

Memories of Mexico

What has happened that has made Texas abandon its commitment to education? In the 1800s, one of the reasons Texas sought independence from Mexico was their inability to provide Texans an education. The Texas Declaration of Independence complained in 1836 “[Mexico] has failed to establish any public system of education, although possessed of almost boundless resources, (the public domain,) and although it is an axiom in political science, that unless a people are educated and enlightened, it is idle to expect the continuance of civil liberty, or the capacity for self government.” Fast forward to present day and I’m sure Texas’ founding fathers would be astonished at how far the state has strayed from its original commitment to and desire for public education.

Texas’ founders, for whom many Texas schools are named, would be shocked to see the systematic dismantling of Texas’ public education system through years of underfunding, inequitable funding formulas that haven’t been updated since the 1990s, a divisive state board of education that uses Texas’ curriculum as their playground for political platitudes and dogma, a proposed voucher program that would funnel tax payer dollars to unaccountable private schools, and a state political party platform that discourages teaching critical thinking skills. I’m not sure whether it’s politics, selfishness, ideology, shortsightedness, or simply indifference that has led Texas to this place. But what I know is Texas will not be able to sustain itself in this manner for long.

I don’t think that it’s only nostalgia that drives my desire for Jackson to experience my 1970s kindergarten. I want my child to be educated where state leaders value education. I want my child to be educated where lawmakers recognize that their state’s future economic development depends upon those kindergarteners it educates today. I want my child and all Texas students to be provided the same opportunity for success that I received. I want a state that does more than fund education (although reeling from a $5.4 billion educational deficit, even just funding it would be nice about now) – what I really want for Texas children is a state that encourages education.

Legislators, Be Warned

So to the legislators that are tired of hearing my calls and reading my words; to my family and friends that might not understand my crusade to help my child and all Texas students; to the educators and parents that are willing to sit down quietly and accept the status quo, please know that my words and my desire and my passion will not go away. It comes with being a mom.

I will gladly take the scorn, ridicule, and mean-spirited attacks of the lawmakers, special interest groups, and their anti-education minions who think they know better. I will be a nuisance and a thorn in the side of anti-education legislators. I will tell the story of Texas’ attack on public education to anyone that will listen – and even those that won’t. I will work to ensure that lawmakers that oppose education will be seeking new employment opportunities at the end of their term. I will partner with other parents to ensure they understand the convoluted, bureaucratic mess known as Texas’ school finance system to ensure politicians won’t find sanctuary for their actions in our ignorance.

I will work with an army of pissed-off mamas to serve as watchdogs for Texas students, ensuring they receive the education they deserve – the education they are entitled to by Texas’ constitution and the education Texas’ founders fought for nearly 200 years ago. Lawmakers, you have may have lobbyists, special interests, and West Texas oilmen bending your ear and buying your vote; you may have the power of the purse strings; you may have political clout; but those Texas children – they have Moms. And we will take you on. We have numbers and we have voices, and we’re not afraid to use them.

If you want to pretend our children don’t exist, shrug off their futures, and turn this state into a back-water, uneducated wasteland –know that you’ll have to get past us first. I am a mother and I will not go quietly.

Leave a Reply