In recent years our system of public education, once lauded as the world’s greatest, has been under attack. The “government schools“ as they are derisively referred to, are an extension of the meme popularized by Ronald Reagan’s joke that the government can do nothing right and is only out to hurt you: “There’s a knock at the door and when you answer it a man says, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’” Pause for big laugh.
I hope it is unnecessary to enumerate at any length here the great accomplishments of the public-sphere and the public-private partnerships that took man to the moon, invented the Internet, brought electricity to rural America, and eradicated polio.
Our current moment of social and political unrest is where decades of the denigration and vilification of our public education system has led.
Every once in a while we are reminded of how decent public servants behave. In just the last week, the national cyber-security chief, Georgia’s secretary of state, elections supervisor, and governor—Republicans all—stood up to refute the baseless and farcical charges that they were complicit in “stealing” the election. In so doing, they’ve risked their political careers, and even their safety, in this deadly-silly season.
If there is a continuing theme in these columns, it is that we need an acknowledged slate of agreed-upon facts. It is a fact that President Trump got fewer votes than Joe Biden. It is a fact that there is not a cabal of child-abusers led by the highest ranking elected Democrats. It is a fact that public education is necessary to the health and growth of the nation.
Just saying the election was rigged, child-molesters run the Democratic Party, or public education is indoctrinating our children in Socialism does not make those things true.
The fact is that, beginning with the one-room school houses of our pioneering past, the American experiment has been moved forward by its efforts to educate every last one of us. And importantly, to give us a shared set of facts—not opinions—facts, that are the social glue that binds us.
It is equally true that not all of our schools perform as well as the Coronado public schools. We are blessed to live in a city that recognizes the value of quality public education, and can afford it. The same cannot be said for many inner-city and rural school districts.
If there is a single thing in the American economy that provides upward mobility and a level playing field, it is public education.
Perhaps many of this lame-duck president’s diehard defenders actually received an education and simply wish to deny math and over 240 years of constitutional law and tradition. It would be interesting to know what percentage of them got a basic education in civics.
It is a statistical reality that his most adamant followers are less educated than the majority population that elected Joe Biden. We can speculate about other motives like racism, greed, misogyny, ethnocentricity, alienation, and xenophobia, but among the most vehement, lack of education stands out.
Over the last three decades, we have borne witness to the under-funding and dismantling of the public education sphere as most of us knew it growing up. Gym, art, and music classes are endangered species. While the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) curricula are essential, they are colorless and toneless without the benefit of perspective from art, literature, and music.
Many, but not all religious fundamentalists, led by the current secretary of education, Betsy DeVoss, believe that education should be Bible-based and should not be stewarded by government. Under her leadership, these forces have advanced the drive to divert funding to for-profit charter schools. There are some charter school success stories, but they have not provided—at anything near scale—the promised solutions that a robust and well-rounded curriculum in public schools demonstrably provides.
The fact that as a society we have chosen to stymie public schools robs us of the potential contributions of a significant minority of our population. Leveling the playing field and providing the opportunity for upward social- and economic-mobility for all is one of the things that made this country great. It was called “The American Dream.” We do less well when we deny educational opportunity, for educational opportunity is the foundation of economic opportunity. For years, these same conservative forces denied half the population—women—the right to vote, to go to school, and to contribute to the culture and economy.
We must recover from this moment of selfishness, where wishful thinking is more important than equal opportunity. This is the age-old struggle between superstition and science. Let us educate all of our people and not witness the end of The Age of Enlightenment. Like facts, education matters.