What can you do with a hula hoop and a bunch of tacos? They were integral components to We the People’s most recent community meeting about education. Dedicated community members opened up real dialogue in plain language about education policy. One community member offered to do research, another offered to help secure food, and everyone suggested a friend they could bring.
We began by telling our stories of why education matters to us over tacos from a locally owned shop. Two women talked about math teachers who pushed their limits of understanding and helped them advance in grades. Several of us had stories of English teachers who stayed late to keep us dedicated to our writing. One man talked about getting a minor in physics solely because of one dedicated professor. We talked about how we are each the product of the public school system, and the threads of experiences we had in common.
Then we focused on two proposed bills that have been sent to congressional committee since the recent administration change: H.R. 610 and H.R. 899. The first bill proposes to distribute Federal funds for elementary and secondary education in the form of vouchers for eligible students. H.R. 899 intends to eliminate the Department of Education.
It can be hard to imagine what life would be like with certain policy changes. One way that we can learn together is through a simulation, or, a game.
We began the policy discussion using a hula hoop, and we held it up with one hand each. One part of the hula hoop was labeled in bright clear letters “LOCAL PUBLIC SCHOOL.” All around the rim were labels of public school programs such as “English as a second language,” “nutritious breakfasts and lunches,” “arts and music classes,” etc. We discussed that if H.R. 610 passed, there would be people in our circle who represented wealthy families that could choose to opt out of public schools and, in effect, take their taxes with them by using vouchers at other schools. Each time a person let go of the hula hoop by leaving the public school system, one or two school programs disappeared.
Finally, one of our volunteers was unable to hold the hula-hoop with his one hand and there were not enough programs to make the school a good learning environment. This represents how the voucher program not only takes away from our public school funds, but further separates wealthy and middle class students from working class and low-income students. It creates a bigger gap between their education and opportunities.
Vouchers might sound like a helpful idea, but it only works for people who have the money upfront to choose a private or charter school. Many expressed frustration that this bill is referred to as the Choices in Education Act, because it would leave most of us without any choices at all.
We then played a game to show the losses that would happen if H.R. 899 passed, terminating the Department of Education (DoE). We had a big bowl filled with programs that the DoE operates and funds, and went around the room removing them one by one. We discussed how this would change our lives, or the lives of our loved ones. One woman said, “It’s like they forgot why we need education at all.”
Or, she added, “They just don’t want us to get any.”
For the final chapter of our meeting, we looked at a power map I’d drawn up with the help of one of our community members. We learned that both of these bills have been sent to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. North Carolina’s very own Virginia Foxx is the chair of that committee, and Alma Adams from the Charlotte district is a sitting member. Walter Jones from North Carolina co-sponsored HR899. We sat around the table together, munching on taco leftovers and drinking sweet tea, to write these representatives about what we need them to do to keep public education fully funded.
We left with a sense of power, talking about what we could do together next and how best to share this information with our loved ones. We cleaned the room, walked each other to our cars, and agreed to meet again.
The hula hoop showed us how we can come together, but also how it needs many of us holding on to keep it airborne. Public education is under attack, and we must find ways to fight back and make our voices heard.
Lia Kaz currently serves as the North Carolina Community Organizer for Spirit in Action’s We the People: Working Together (WtP) project. Through the WtP project she organizes in low-income, rural communities across Buncombe County to empower civic engagement. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Social Work and won the Alton J. Pfaff Award from Warren Wilson College, which recognized her as the graduating student who most exemplifies the triad of Academics, Work, and Service. She currently lives in Asheville with some great roommates, and a perfect dog named Mona.