Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines indispensable as “absolutely necessary” and “not subject to being set aside or neglected”. I can think of no better word to describe how important our public schools have been, and are, to our communities and country. Unfortunately, the GOP has made it clear they want to privatize and defund public schools. They are working very hard to “set aside and neglect” our community (real) public schools at the risk of great peril to our nation.
Yesterday, U.S. public education advocate #1, Diane Ravitch, published a blog post titled “Inclusion: the key to public school’s value” from Stephen Owens on his blog Common Grace, Common Schools. I hadn’t read anything from Owens before but found his writing both powerful and spot-on. Owens has a Ph.D. in education policy from the University of Georgia and is Director of Education at the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. His truth-to-power straight talk aimed (at least in this post) at white people and Christians, is all the more powerful because he is himself, an evangelical Christian.
“Not only” writes Owens, “are parts of American public schooling unique, but reflect central tenets of the Christian faith.” Three of the tenets he cites are inclusion, equity, and accountability. I’ve written plenty about accountability before and in fact, believe the lack of accountability is the number one problem (or at least in the top three) facing our society today.
As for inclusion and equity, our community public schools promise to educate all, and helped make our nation the powerhouse it is. “Meanwhile”, writes Anya Kamenetz in the New York Times, “a well-funded, decades-old movement that wants to do away with public school as we know it is in ascendance.” Kamenetz is a longtime education reporter and author of “The Stolen Year: How Covid Changed Children’s Lives, and Where We Go Now”. She maintains the extended school closures during the COVID pandemic “effectively broke the social compact of universal, compulsory schooling. Sad but true, parents with means did what could ensure their kids continued to learn and the rest made do with what they had. Increasingly now, students are being home-schooled, attending private schools, or are otherwise absent from their community schools. Teacher shortages are at a crisis level, with many who are still teaching experiencing intense burnout.
Pro-choice advocates are no doubt, rejoicing at this manna dropped from heaven (or maybe pushed up from hell). Undermining our community public schools and the dedicated educators that toil in them has never been easier. Their gains, however, tear at the fabric of our communities, especially in rural locations where the school maybe not only the major employer but also the hub of the community. This is largely true because community schools, regardless of parents’ ability to pay, ensure students are educated, transported to and from school, fed, given medical attention as needed, and provided specialized help when their circumstances warrant. And, let’s be honest, they are often the source of free child care for families.
As much as we’d like to believe our society is a true meritocracy writes Owens, the “brutal truth of schooling in the U.S. is that parental income is strongly predictive of educational outcomes. The real difference in who makes it or not, he says, “is whether your parents have enough money to provide 1) security (food and housing), 2) accountability, 3) targeted support and 4) social capital.” Of course, the GOP continues to push the notion that all the supposed “disadvantaged” need to do is “pull themselves up by their bootstraps”, totally ignoring the fact that this isn’t even physically possible, even if it were true.
As for what is painfully true, many in the GOP want to go back to the “Leave it to Beaver” days. You know, when the neighborhood was all white and comfortably middle class. When Dad went off to work and Mom stayed home and cleaned the house and cooked in her dress, high heels, and pearls. Concern for the common good evidently was much easier in a homogenous society with similar values and understandings. Remember when we used to all watch Walter Cronkite at 5pm to learn about “the way that it was” for each day? That shared understanding of the news, fairly void of opining, provided us common ground upon which to stand.
Likewise, our community schools brought us together to increase our understanding of each other as we became (hopefully) productive members of society. “Without public education delivered as a public good,” writes Kamenetz, “the asylum seeker in detention, the teenager in jail, not to mention millions of children growing up in poverty, will have no realistic way to get the instruction they need to participate in democracy or support themselves”.
Of course, it isn’t just the disadvantaged that suffer, but all of us as evidenced by our extremely high level of polarization. There can be no doubt as to social media’s influence on our polarization, particularly those attacks from our enemies on the global stage (China and Russia for example). But, it is the efforts to rob our community schools of critical funding, dedicated teachers, and the ability to teach the truth, that are most insidious. As Kamenezt points out, “students of privilege will stay confined in their bubbles. Americans will lose the most powerful social innovation that helps us construct a common reality and try, imperfectly, to understand one another.” “In the eyes of conservative activists,” she says, “public education is the enemy of the people, alongside the deep state and the mainstream media, and they are working hard to make the American people believe it too.”
And their tactics are working on a swath of America. According to Phi Delta Kappan (a professional organization for educators) poll from 2020, 53% of Americans support using public tax dollars to pay for private school tuition (48% for religious schools). This should not be entirely surprising as the GOP has worked this very hard for at least 40 years when President Reagan promised to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education and Grover Nordquist advocated drowning the government in the bathtub.
As part of their Machiavellian scheme, the GOP has managed to market private school choice options as the ones that offer parents the most control. The truth is the exact opposite (what a shock). Public schools are the only school choice option that offers parents total accountability and transparency. Other school choice options offer virtually none of either.
I once thought GOP stood for “Grand Old Party”, but now I think maybe it is “Gaslighters or Prevaricators”. Ain’t tryin’ to be hatin’ on those on the Right. I understand they are not a monolithic group. Would just really like to see the party stand for something again instead of just spouting negative ideology. We need a strong two-party system to find good solutions to the many problems our country faces. And, we need to set a good example for our children so they can lead into the future they will inherit. One where the common good is again good and common and…it really matters to all of us.