In the Defense of Public Schools

Millard Member’s Experiences Elsewhere Renew Her Support of Nebraska Public Schools

Laura Fisher’s teaching career has taken her across half the country and renewed her appreciation for Nebraska’s public schools.

She has taught in states where public schools have been ravaged by deep funding cuts or have been targeted by legislation favoring vouchers and privatization. She has seen elementary schools where music, art and physical education have been stripped from the curriculum. She has witnessed as elected officials have cut taxes so deeply that they have crippled public schools and threatened their own state’s credit rating.

Those first-hand experiences have led her back to Nebraska where she is a firm and vocal defender of public schools, and where she encourages Nebraskans to preserve and protect what she fears many may take for granted: a system of quality public schools.

“I think moving out of the Midwest made me appreciate how lucky we are and how amazing our public schools are,” said Fisher. “We train our teachers well. We care about our schools.

“I know our schools are amazing, but when you start losing funding, our class sizes get bigger, more work falls on teachers, and teachers take on, take on and take on – and they get burned out,” she said. “I just don’t want this to happen in Nebraska.”

‘Fighting for Public Schools’

Fisher taught briefly in Lincoln before leaving for San Diego in 2003. She found schools badly underfunded, the result of overly constrictive property tax limits instituted with Proposition 13 more than 40 years ago. Her family moved to Kansas City in 2009, and soon watched as Gov. Sam Brownback’s move to eliminate corporate and other taxes decimated Kansas public schools, even causing the closure of the neighborhood school her son attended.

In 2016 her husband took a research post at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha and the family moved back to Nebraska, settling in Elkhorn. Fisher found work teaching art with the Millard Public Schools at Russell Middle School.

The California and Kansas experiences caused Fisher to take notice of politics, to begin to support public education-friendly candidates, and even garner some notice as she voiced defense of public schools at a town hall event in the Omaha area early last March. At that event, she asked

Elkhorn Sen. Lou Ann Linehan about her bills (LB1202 and LB974) to give dollar-for-dollar tax breaks for private school donors and to reduce the taxable value of property for school funding purposes. Had they passed, both would have further de-funded public schools.

That occasion reinforced Fisher’s belief that there are political actors who do not always have the best interest of public schools at heart. Fisher, on the other hand, is all in for public schools and hopes that others will make the same commitment.

“I’m fighting for my child, your child, my profession as a teacher and our public schools,” she said.

Causing Pain in Kansas

Fisher began teaching in Lincoln, and once married, started moving. A brief stop in St. Louis was followed by a move to San Diego, a paradise where “I didn’t dream I wouldn’t be able to find a job.”

An unintended consequence of California’s Proposition 13, which passed in 1978 and severely limited property taxes, was the damage to school budgets and programs for students. The cuts were devastating – there was no elementary art, physical education or music during her family’s six years in the area. Teachers with little experience were frequently pink slipped, even in years when there were teacher shortages. “It was a shock. I ended up substituting,” said Fisher.

When her son neared kindergarten age, Fisher and her husband looked to the Midwest. They had heard good things about the schools around Kansas City, KS, and soon found an opportunity for her husband’s career in science research. She took a job in Shawnee Mission. What they didn’t see coming was Brownback’s “March to Zero” plan to eliminate the state’s income and corporate taxes.

Fisher said March to Zero was designed to attract corporations to Kansas, but also meant to slowly starve and defund public schools, making it easier to eventually privatize public education.

“I don’t even have words for the pain this caused Kansas,” said Fisher.

What the “March” did was cause nine rounds of state budget cuts, two sales tax hikes, three downgrades of the state’s credit rating and record state debt. The Kansas Legislature even skipped making its payments to the state pension plan for teachers and state employees. At one point, there were 330,000 limited liability corporations in Kansas paying zero income tax.

By 2012, the school in Fisher’s neighborhood closed due to funding issues and her second-grade son was bused to another school. That school was so crowded that cafeteria tables had to be put up in hallways. Extra-curriculars like middle school sports were cut.

“We lived there eight years and there was at least $30 million cut from the budget of my school district alone,” she said. “It’s going to take years to recover.”

Time to Speak Out

Today, Fisher teaches art in Nebraska, actively supports candidates who support public schools and talks freely about the value and importance of public schools.

“I don’t want what happened to Kansas to happen to my home state,” she said.

She said Nebraska’s good schools drew her family back to the state. “They talk about brain drain – my husband is definitely a brain – and the public schools are why we came back,” she said.

It saddens her that she sees the same tactics used to harm schools in Kansas being employed in Nebraska – which is why she attended the town hall event with Sen. Linehan last year. Fisher asked about the senator’s bill on dollar-for-dollar tax deductions for private school donors, and

Linehan’s initial response noted that law enforcement was present at the meeting, as if asking a question posed a threat to her.

“I know you can’t get in trouble for politely asking questions of your representative, so that moment lit the fire,” said Fisher.

It would be devastating if vouchers or charter schools are allowed in Nebraska, as they would pull funds from public schools, said Fisher. But there is big money behind those movements.

“It would be devastating if it happens here, but it’s hard to go up against that money,” she said. “So you speak out. That’s what it takes.”

Indeed, if we don’t speak up, our students, our public schools and our state may suffer irreparable harm.