Commentary: Schools need good maintenance, like your car and home

In Monday’s New York Times, the sorry state of public education was on display. Tattered textbooks, broken and outdated equipment and facilities in disrepair were featured, as teachers reported on how much of their own money they spend each year to try to close some resource gaps for their students.

A teacher in Palacios in South Texas was among those featured. But if we are honest, we know we can find these conditions anywhere and everywhere, including here in Austin.

In this country, we often glorify those who do their best with what they have, don’t complain, show ingenuity and resourcefulness. When you look at the examples these teachers provide, you might think they are modeling those qualities — and they are. But there is nothing heroic about teachers accepting unequivocally substandard conditions. It does not serve our children — and it gives them the message that they are worthless.

EDUCATION: Texas pre-K poorly funded but still excels for one key student group.

Many teachers will give up the profession because working in a system that does not give them the equipment and resources they need makes them feel worthless, too. Moreover, while the examples highlighted in the Times are extreme and visual, real differences in the quality of school environments, resources, and teacher retention is much more subtle and much more pervasive.

I can track those differences easily just by driving past the several elementary schools in a five-mile radius of my home and walking around their campuses. Still, we seem to wonder why our nation’s academic performance overall is not stellar, all the while continuing to pile more societal duty on public schools — such as providing meals, social services, and health care screenings.

As a parent of a child in Austin ISD, I have often been asked to contribute money for supplies and enrichment, to help top off teachers’ salaries with gifts and cash, and to volunteer time and money to fundraisers. These infusions improve the education my child receives, though we often cannot afford to give all that is asked. We pay dearly in property taxes and wonder why more of these costs cannot already be covered by public funds. They should be.

RELATED: As teachers strike in other states, Texas teachers are also unhappy.

The answer is not to ask teachers and parents to chip in more. The answer is to collect and equitably distribute the necessary funds across public education systems and fund it like the priority it should be — for all our children. They represent, as we know, our very future, even for those who don’t have children of their own.

I am proud of all the teachers who have been standing up for their kids and themselves through strikes or other means of protest around the country. I applaud the parents who have supported them — despite the disruptions it may have caused — understanding that the goal of better overall school funding outweighs their short-term inconvenience. I hope the wave continues, because it puts the onus on our elected officials to solve the funding problem — where it belongs.

We don’t expect businesses starved of capital to thrive. We also accept that owning a house or car means putting money into maintenance — and we don’t expect our roofs to stop leaking or brakes to stop squeaking by themselves. Most of us know the importance of taking care of our bodies with exercise, diet and rest. But somehow, we think children and teachers should just muddle along — in some cases, apparently, with stuff Goodwill probably wouldn’t even take. All of us, parents or not, need to collectively demand better for our kids.

Nicklas is a freelance journalist and former teacher who lives in Austin.

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