With Privilege Comes Responsibility, But How Much Responsibility?

Autumn family

I may be able to protect my son from the impact of his school’s upcoming budget cuts, but what about his poverty-stricken classmates whose parents can’t afford to fight back? What’s my responsibility to them?

What is the responsibility of those of us who are privileged by race, income, education?

I have asked myself that question a hundred times in the last few weeks as our home Chicago Public School (CPS) district attempts to balance its budget by reducing resources for diverse learners (children with developmental delays). My 7-year-old with Down syndrome is directly impacted by these cuts. Given my family’s economic position, I expect I will be able to protect him from the worst of it, but that’s a hollow victory when so many other children will be left without proper educational supports.

I understand that I am the product of privilege. I am white. I am well educated with reasonable financial security. Although I worked hard in school and my career, I am well aware that the distinction of a college degree and a comfortable career has little to do with any particular excellence on my part. I was born into a family where that path was set from the beginning. I only fulfilled the expectations laid out for me.

I have certainly known bias as a lesbian, but economic resources can greatly mitigate social discrimination. Homophobia? I moved to Chicago into neighborhoods where acceptance is high. No legalized same-sex marriage? My partner and I married in Canada years ago. Not allowed parental rights for the son my partner gave birth to? My job provided free legal insurance and the adoption cost us almost nothing.

The obstacles I faced were unjust, but it would be disingenuous to say that they ever felt insurmountable. And now I am a beneficiary of more equitable rights thanks to the tireless efforts of other LGBTQIA advocates. Sure, I signed petitions and donated money, but I wish I had extended myself more. I was lazy because I had managed to insulate myself from many of the harshest impacts of discrimination.

I am in a similar place now, advocating on my son’s behalf. The day I learned that CPS planned to make drastic cuts to their diverse learner programs, my first thought was that my family should move to the suburbs. Moving is, after all, a favorite strategy of the white middle class in Chicago.

Twelve years ago, when my partner and I were searching for homes, we chose the most diverse neighborhood in Chicago. In Uptown you find people of all races, nationalities, gay and straight, wealthy and homeless. We wanted that texture of life for our future child.

But after we moved, we soon learned that while the neighborhood is diverse, the public schools are not. White and/or middle class families with young children either send their children to private school or move out of the city altogether before their little ones start kindergarten.

We stayed. Private school is not realistic for a child who needs additional support and family commitments kept us in the city. So I learned to work the CPS system.

Two years ago, after a disastrous kindergarten year where my son regressed both socially and academically, I set out to change his environment. He had been buried in a classroom that did not demand independence or participation and I determined that he would benefit from a one-to-one aide who could help teach him how to be a student.

When I requested the aide, I was initially told that my son did not need extra help. After successfully arguing that point, I was told that CPS required an assessment process that would take months and huge amounts of paperwork.

I appealed to a school administrator who was outside of my son’s school. She was known for denying parent requests, but on the advice of a friend I researched the precise legal terminology used in guaranteeing children with disability a public education and used that verbiage in my letter to her. She came to my son’s school, briefly observed him in the classroom and then after meeting with my partner and me for another quarter hour declared that my son obviously needed an aide and no additional assessment was required.

Clearly, her assessment was of my partner and me more than our son. We understood our son’s legal rights with respect to his education. We looked and talked like people willing and able to hire a good lawyer. It was cheaper for her just to approve the aide.

We were in a privileged position and we played our cards to get our son the resources he needed.

Now CPS is promising more cuts. They are pressuring my son’s teacher to create independence from the aide—a worthy goal as long as he is truly functioning well in his classes but CPS’s intent is only to ensure that he is cosmetically going through his day with less assistance. They want the money, not the well-functioning student.

Do I have recourse? Yes. CPS might very well leave my son’s aide out of future cuts, again primarily because their strategy is to avoid drawn out battles with families that have the resources to go to court. So many middle class families have left CPS that our schools are filled with students living in poverty. Their parents may be working multiple jobs. They are raising additional children along with their disabled child. They don’t have time to research educational rights and legal recourse. They can’t afford legal expenses.

This reality is precisely why CPS is making cuts in the diverse learner programming. They are targeting a small group that has few resources to fight. Parents of non-disabled children may temporarily feel bad for the students with developmental delays, but are more likely to breathe a sigh of relief that their child is not impacted by the budget crisis. The few economically privileged families remaining in the district will either protect our children’s rights or leave as well.

I am torn. On the one hand, I am not going to throw away the privilege I have and allow my son’s education to suffer. He has enough life challenges that I cannot protect him from—I am not going to pass over my opportunity here. On the other hand, I do not want to sit idly by while other people fight this battle, content in having insulated my son from the worst of it.

So I am at least trying to bear witness. I see many parents working hard to give their children the best opportunity possible, only to have CPS repeatedly undermine their efforts. I see children with developmental disabilities who have the potential to one day work in our communities but may well never see the potential realized because of short-term budget balancing.

And I see myself moving to the suburbs, all the while asking, what else should I have done?

Anne Penniston Grunsted writes about parenting, disability, and family life from her perspective as a lesbian mama. She has been published in The Washington Post, Brain, Child Magazine, Mamamia, and won the 2014 Nonfiction prize from Beecher’s Magazine. She lives in Chicago with her partner and son.

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