“I can’t grant write my way out of systemic inequality.”

The other day, I read a provocative response on At The Chalk Face to the “character-building” programs developed by KIPP Charter and touted by Paul Tough in his new book. To quote:

Tough begins his book talking about how poverty creates obstacles in children’s lives, but never allows himself to say that we should combat that poverty directly.  He toys around the edges, citing programs that do the work of anti-poverty programs, but then still ends on teaching “grit” in no-excuses charters as the ultimate answer.

Personally, I like the language behind character development that Tough describes (I’ve read the NYTimes excerpt; I need to order the book.) But I wholeheartedly agree that the program should not be treated as all it takes to solve a massive systemic problem — that if disadvantaged individuals were just given a few key tools and work hard enough, they would be able to overcome every hardship.

My mind came back to this when a colleague asked me whether I would be attending this week’s PhilaSoup, a monthly micro grant fundraiser for classroom teachers. Attendees pay $10 to attend, which pays for their dinner and helps fund the grant. Teachers propose projects during the meal, and at the end, the audience votes on one to win. The typical grant is a couple hundred bucks.

I appreciate this idea, but what kills me is that these grants pay projects that schools would happily fund themselves if they had the money. The proposals are not personal, absurd larks. They are for books and art materials and uniforms — things that many wealthier districts pay for without a second thought, and that many city schools also subsidized when the coffers were fuller (or existed at all). Without activities funds or parents who can afford it, teachers are left to hustle for the funding on a level that goes way beyond phone calls and bake sales.

Let me make it clear that I don’t fault or criticize groups like PhilaSoup themselves one bit — they have an innovative, individual-driven solution to a very real problem. But, just like with the KIPP character development, why do these programs so often get lauded as the solution for a problem that exists on systemic level? What would happen if all of the positive press about “teacher grant-writers” and “doing more with less” turned around and looked at the causes of these shortages? What if, instead of lending their personalities to a Donors Choose promo video, Stephen Colbert and Oprah Winfrey went after the lawmakers whose policies allow educational inequality to occur? What if everybody who donated on that site did the same?

I know the rationale: It is easier to champion one person than to take on the system. That’s how these programs get traction. Photos of kids on field trips are cuter are cuter than charts of statistics — and teachers are the new rugged individualists.

The thing is, I don’t need you to cheer me on as I craft the language for yet another grant proposal for my school. I need you to vote, and write, and speak up for more funding in my district, so that someday I can give that time I spend fundraising back to my students.

At the very least, I need everybody to acknowledge that this problem exists. 

– Larissa Pahomov

Teacher, Science Leadership Academy