Which State Shall We Live In?

On the eve of a Seattle teacher strike, a mother wishes for a state that serves all children

Tonight I write from the state of Washington. A state overflowing with natural beauty and resources, this great green land on the Pacific that spawned Nirvana and Amazon and big timber and Boeing and apples and Microsoft. We are smallish on population, sharply divided as our political leanings follow our geography. Volcanoes. Glaciers. Rainforests. Soaring cathedrals of trees. Grand broad hills of wheat. More food and smarts and technology than we have a right to.

We were the first state whose citizens took up our ballots and declared, “Here, all loving couples are allowed to marry.” We love a popular consensus.  The grunge-libertarian ethic encourages us all to “come as you are.”

I can walk out of my house and share a bike, hop on a ferry or light rail train, or take a bus and within a few miles see otters, sea lions, bald eagles, orcas and all manner of brilliant sea stars at low tide, all for the cost of a coffee. I can barely believe that I have the great privilege to raise my daughters in a place that is so vibrantly beautiful.

But tonight, I don’t feel that the vibrant beauty is evident in the way we take care of each other in this, my adopted state.

We are, tonight, one of the most sharply unequal states I can imagine living in.

I have never paid a dime of state income tax, but I have had to pay hundreds of dollars a month to make up for the gap in funding for full-day kindergarten.

I vote using a mail-in ballot, often my votes are to enact things that my representative government cannot fund.

I send my children to a public school in a state whose legislature has been found to be in contempt of its own supreme court ruling to fund education.

A state that would rather pay a fine of $100,000 per day to stay in contempt rather than give teachers a cost of living increase or send kindergarteners to school.

A state where one of the biggest employers volunteered to pay an additional $28 million in taxes …just to coax the state to fund some education programs to get graduates to keep the millions rolling in.

A state where one of our promising new revenue streams was to tax legal marijuana.

A state that is home to the richest man in America. A state that gets awfully tetchy when he tries to use his billions on problems that the people of the state should be responsible for themselves.

The state that in this past decade was the only one in the U.S. to have a positive trade balance with China.

I live in a city where the cost of living has skyrocketed.

A city where transit is perennially on the chopping block, but one where I cannot get groceries without seeing a Tesla on the road, the only true status symbol among the choking throngs of Audis and BMWs.

A city with new condos and townhouses like mycelia while great clusters of tents mushroom amidst the blackberries on the interstate.

A city where even the $15 minimum wage won’t provide for the rents that skyrocket with double-digit increases.

A city where seismologists measure the quakes from Superbowl-crazed fans but where the criticism by our educators is silenced.

I live in a home with a daughter who was to begin third grade tomorrow.

I live in a home with an incoming kindergartner.

And my children will not start school tomorrow.

Because the inequality in this state and in this city is no match for whatever I try to do at home.

Our teachers voted to strike, after six years without a cost of living increase. Six years in which the Seattle economy shot out of a cannon. Years in which our legislature did nothing to meet its legal obligation to our state’s most vulnerable: our children.

Our teachers unanimously voted to strike, frustrated at teaching in a district where children of color are suspended four times more frequently than their white counterparts. Frustrated at teaching in a district that demanded more work and no play from children who began school behind. Frustrated at teaching in district where teachers are evaluated on student performance, without considerations for massive opportunity gap that so many of our students face.

Our teachers voted to strike because they and the rest of the building staff were being asked to do more with less. More hours. More students. Less support.

And rather than listening, our school board and our superintendent engaged a legal team and made provisions to taking legal actions against the teachers before the strike deadline had even passed.

I don’t want to live in this state of inequality. I don’t want to live in this city where the craven worship of the almighty dollar obscures the very levers that put the first work into building our economy. I don’t want to live in a home where my children are barred from their first day of school by the board and administration of the district that should serve them.

I want to live in a state of grace, where teachers are valued for their expertise and treated as competent professionals on the normal days. I want to live in a state of respect, where disputes are addressed in good faith rather than threatening legal action. I want to live in a state of plenty, where my children could also reap the  the bounty of this state — her jets, her microprocessors, her old growth forests, her hemp-milk lattes, her agriculture. Not more than their fair share, but a place at the table.

I want to live in a city on the hill, one that prides itself on its libraries and independent bookstores and has the moral fortitude to send its children to school. I want to live in a city that models itself on the beloved community, where no educator is complicit in institutional discrimination.

A city where my brown children are not on a school-to-prison pipeline.

A city where our teachers can afford to live in the neighborhoods where they teach, rather than being pushed miles away as members of the working poor, Masters degree strongly preferred.

A city with the ethical courage to educate all her children so that they may fill her art galleries and machinists shifts and teeming docks and lecture halls and laboratories  with the kinds of minds and hearts that will care for the earth and for one another in the 21st century.

Tonight, I dream.

Tomorrow, they picket.

And we’ll be marching right alongside them.

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