Our Brother’s Keeper

I find myself these days, thinking about how America seems so less kind than when I was younger. Am I’m just less naïve now? Or, as Charles Pierce recently wrote in Esquire, is the system really “too full now of opportunities to grind and to bully? We have politicians, most of whom will never have to work another day in their lives, making the argument seriously that there is no role in self-government for the protection and welfare of the political commonwealth as that term applies to the poorest among us. The rising rates of poverty no longer surprise us. The chaos of our lunatic public discourse no longer surprises us. We make policy based on being as tough as we can on the weakest among us, because cruelty is seen to be enough, seen to be the fundamental morality behind what ultimately is merely the law of the jungle. We do all these things, cruelty running through them like a cold river, and we call it our politics”.

I see cruelty at work in the corporate reform movement. Not only are teachers not properly valued for their contribution to society, but the corporate reformers have managed to vilify them as a blockage to improvement. Not only have they spread the message that public schools are failing, but they’ve also managed to push budget cuts and competition for resources intended to make their allegations a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Yes, the national corporate reform of education movement claims public education is failing and the only solution is to privatize our system to let market forces produce better results. What they fail to acknowledge though, is that it is not the schools that are failing, but our social policies. Poverty is the issue, not public education. When we compare apples with apples in the area of developed world education performance, we are very near the top. The problem is that we educate and test all comers, not just the best performing ones as the countries at the top do. We will never get our public education where it needs to be until we address the affects of poverty on public education success.

Open enrollment is not the answer; it only serves to create competition amongst public schools for precious resources. School choice is not the answer; it only shifts the responsibility from the state to the parent. Parents shouldn’t have to make a choice; every public school should be a good school. Vouchers for disadvantaged students to attend private schools aren’t the answer. Very few of those students will have access to take advantage of the opportunity and those that can’t, will be left in schools sucked dry by the privatization movement. The only real solution is to buckle down and address our real issues.

None of this is complicated, but neither is it easy. For all to have equal opportunity, all must start at the same place or, have access to a “bridge” to cross the divide. Building the “bridges” is hard work and will take serious funding. There isn’t a quick fix politicians can claim with sound bites on the evening news. But, it also takes commitment from the voters as well – to hold their representatives accountable, to be willing to provide funding, and to be patience to let the real, good work be done. It also takes the outlook advocated by John Dewey over a century ago: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his child, that must we want for all the children of the community. Anything less is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy.”

Survival of the fittest is the law of the jungle, but it shouldn’t be the law of a civilized, democratic republic that considers itself the “city on the hill.” Contrary to what our talking heads spew forth, concern for the common good is not socialistic or communistic. It is patriotic, it is democratic, it is, some might even argue, quite Christian-like. What would Jesus do? I suspect he would be kind and tell us that yes; we are our brother’s keeper.