Public education is vital to a democracy
America owes much of its prominence and prosperity to the fact that it has led the world in popular education. Even without a public school system, we had the highest literacy in the world in the 19th century. We were among the first to provide public school to the young through the 12th grade. We were the first to open the doors of colleges and universities – significantly through the GI Bill after World War II – to children from all levels of income.
Today, however, public education in the United States is under siege. Public school teachers and librarians have become punching bags in the political wars. Teachers are underpaid and overstressed. College is priced out of reach for more and more children, with administrators and facilities consuming ever more of the resources, while professors and graduate assistants fall behind. Schools are now battlefields in our partisan political wars. Job satisfaction for public school teachers is at a 50-year low. Thousands are leaving the profession and fewer and fewer college students are taking it up.
Florida offers a good example. Its governor, Ron DeSantis, has made the “war on wokeism” a centerpiece of his presidential political campaign. He has signed into law multiple “educational gag orders” – criminalizing classroom discussions on race, gender, and history that might make White students “feel guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress.” School libraries are purged of books, with librarians at risk if they don’t fall in line. Even the teaching of Shakespeare has been censored in some districts as too racy for children to hear (the same children who too often share far more shocking material on social media).
Florida teacher salaries are ranked 48th in the country. Now teachers are not only unpaid but they are assailed, vilified and threatened – not only with the loss of a job but with potential criminal charges.
The result – not surprisingly – is that the brightest and best teachers are headed north. When DeSantis became governor in 2019, the Nation Magazine reports, Florida already had a teacher shortage of 2,217 in grades K through 12. When he began his second term four years later, that number had more than doubled. This August, the Florida Education Association reported the number of unfilled positions at an unimaginable 7,000. The destructiveness of DeSantis’ war on wokeism is likely to be felt for a generation.
As public institutions engaged with children, schools have always been centers of controversy. In the South, segregation enforced separate but unequal schools, dividing children by race. In the North, as Jonathan Kozol detailed, public schools reflected the “savage inequality” of neighborhood disparities in wealth and race. Busing is routine across America, but it became a lightning rod when courts ordered busing to try to integrate schools in metropolitan areas.
In the countries that rank the highest in educational proficiency, teachers are treated with respect and paid well. In Finland, which ranks highest in international testing, gaining admission to a teacher’s college is fiercely competitive. Teachers are supplied with the resources, the teaching aides, the classroom sizes vital to doing their job well. In the U.S., teachers spend an average of about $700 out of their own pockets on school supplies, with those in the poorest neighborhoods spending the most.
Passionate debates about what is taught, what books are read, what history is imparted are inevitable. We want children to learn about America’s triumphs, but we also can’t whitewash our history and present it as a fairy tale. Children need to learn about our victories and our failures, our horrors, our shameful chapters, as well. We can’t learn from our mistakes if we don’t admit them.
In these partisan times, when social issues – abortion, race, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, immigration – are at the center of our political turmoil, it is inevitable that schools will be engaged in those debates.
Teachers inevitably will be at the center of such debates, not merely witnesses to them but active participants in them. Those with experience in the classroom are likely to have the best insights on what works and what doesn’t.
We surely don’t want partisan politicians using schools as a political football. We want teachers to be respected, free to express their views and share their expertise. We want parents to be involved, able to express their values, their hopes and their fears. Somehow these common sense ideas, which the vast majority would agree upon, too often get lost in the battles.
Even in the midst of the ongoing argument, we should not forget to honor and respect those who choose to teach our children. We should not forget that one teacher who can unleash a child’s imagination or feed his or her curiosity can transform a life. Thomas Jefferson believed that public education is vital to a democracy, that a well-educated citizenry would be happier, and better able to build a vibrant community. Surely that’s a lesson we should all remember.
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