I provide my service to everyone. I don’t ask about your ancestry, income, race, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, citizenship, or social standing. I don’t care if your parents work in a mine or on the top floor of a corporate headquarters. I am not concerned about how you are dressed or where you live. I will serve you even if you cannot speak English or if you need special assistance. My door is always open to you; my commitment to your success, unconditional. I am American public education. You are welcome here.
This is the school system that has been a foundation of our country — one that ensured all children would be provided an education and, at the same time, a chance to assimilate into a society with people from every country on earth. Each of these goals is important; both are necessary.
This, of course, is easier to write than it is to implement. Saying we are dedicated to providing every child a high-quality education regardless of who they are, as well as offering opportunities to learn about others who may not look the same, is a noble declaration. It speaks to our highest values, including equal opportunity for all. Yet, real life seems to get in the way of delivering on the promise. We have good reason to wonder if the commitment to public education remains as cherished today as it was in the past.
We can begin by noting the deep cuts to K-12 education in many state budgets—some enacted in the aftermath of the Great Recession but never fully reversed as tax revenues picked up. We can consider the mandates and other burdens imposed on public schools that typically are not applied to their private counterparts, creating an unlevel playing field on which all schools are supposed to compete. And, we can see many efforts to divert essential aid from public schools, often as vouchers or tax credits.
In the name of school choice, more than tax dollars are being redistributed. Evidence is accumulating that American education is becoming increasingly segregated by race and socioeconomic status. The melting pot rapidly is turning into a layer cake —especially in many charter schools and other programs where enrollment is based on selection and not assignment.
Tribalism affects more than education, of course. It is evident in many aspects of life, including in today’s politics. Splintering into groups is not new; one might argue it is part of the human condition. The difference now is that some of the social structures designed to counter it—that is, to pull people together—are themselves being tested. The historic significance of these unifying efforts seems to be fading if not lost altogether. As we fight battles to increase school funding or oppose privatization, a larger threat appears to go virtually unnoticed—the steady erosion of vital institutions that produced the incredible story of America. When political leaders view public education as an expense and not an investment, and when they consider it to be just another service to be outsourced, they demonstrate chilling disregard for that history and the lessons it can teach for our future.
Each generation is called to do its part. According to legend, as Benjamin Franklin left the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, he was asked what kind of government the delegates had created. He replied: “A republic, if you can keep it.” Indeed.
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