Why I Love Public Education
The critics of public education have had their say, more than their say, in recent months. Isn’t it a predictable side-effect in difficult economic times that scapegoats must be found? I’m not saying everything is great in public education or that the criticisms are baseless, but the gross generalizations, distortions, and lies are proving rather resilient.
Let me tell you why I still love public education, and why I’m fighting to improve it.
Every day when I go to work in my classroom, I work with fantastic young people who are on the brink of adulthood and are thirsty for knowledge and opportunity. You wouldn’t know it from the debates you hear in education policy and politics, but my students have interests and needs that go far beyond the basics, much deeper than the buzzwords like “critical thinking” and “21st century skills.” Certainly, those are important, but when students walk into class each day, they bring with them a whole range of experiences and questions, hopes and worries that may not seem very academic but have everything to do with conditions for learning. Who am I? What am I doing here? Is there a place for me here? How will I manage tomorrow, next year, or beyond high school? Where is life taking me?
Now, certainly those questions are universal for teenagers – whether they attend a private school or a public school. However, the great promise of public education is the assertion that all children, regardless of family wealth or background, deserve the same access to a high quality education in a safe and supportive atmosphere. Every child deserves a school full of caring adults who act in loco parentis, treating our students like our own children, meeting their academic needs and personal needs. (And anyone who thinks the personal, social, or emotional lives of children should not be part of the conversation has either an incredibly narrow view of education, or a fundamental misunderstanding of learning).
Public education has a particular value to our society because it has the unique potential to become the center of a diverse community. When I observe my students in class each day, I see hope for the future. They not only learn skills and curriculum, but they learn how much they have in common with peers of different social, ethnic, or religious backgrounds. They learn to participate in a civil discussion where opinions diverge and controversies arise. When we have events for parents and community members, we bring together dozens of cultural and linguistic backgrounds, recent immigrants with long-settled families, entry-level workers, CEOs and former professional athletes.
Some people will argue we could do better by privatizing education, or switching to a voucher system. I think the existing models demonstrate that such an approach is likely to divide us more than unite us. Top-tier private schools would still be the province of the wealthy, only more so, as any wealthy families currently using public schools would migrate to the private schools; voucher amounts would not be sufficient to open doors of opportunity for most needy families.
We have a long way to go to live up to the ideal of public education. There are terrible inequities in our public schools when it comes to resources and challenges. I confront those inequities constantly in my interactions with colleagues such as my fellow members Accomplished California Teachers and Teacher Leaders Network, and whenever I attend workshops or conferences and meet teachers from other parts of the state or country.
I believe that the solutions to those inequities will require a significant shift in our sense of responsibility to our fellow Californians and fellow Americans. It won’t happen in education alone. I think it will happen when we recognize that there’s more value in education than incarceration, more value in universal health care than in the war on terror. Our nation stood together to respond to an attack that killed thousands of our fellow citizens, but we have yet to stand together to respond to the health care crisis that contributes to so many more illnesses and deaths every year. Our national tax rates are at the lowest levels in generations, and our national poverty rate should be a matter of collective shame – especially when that means we have homeless and undernourished children. We will spend whatever it takes to keep a criminal incarcerated, but cut corners in education and job training, mental health services, treatment for addictions – all of the cheaper alternatives that might help avoid the criminality. We love the flag more than the liberty and justice for all.
Public education offers me hope that we’ll keep improving and growing as a people, because I see in my students the commitment to learning and working together, and I have to hold on to the belief that they will help their elders see the light.
Of course, we can help speed that process along by joining together to Save Our Schools. That’s why I’ll be in Washington D.C. during the last weekend in July.