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The Battle To Save Public Education
And the soul of America
It is back to school. Students of all ages flock to campuses and classrooms. Fleeting memories of summer are quickly replaced by tests and textbooks.
Getting into the swing of a new semester has always included an adjustment period, but this is a particularly difficult time for many of our nation’s students and their parents, guardians, teachers, and others entrusted with the education of young minds.
The pandemic wreaked havoc with the emotional, intellectual, and social development of America’s youth. Dismal test scores provide depressing data of yawning learning deficits. Talk to anyone in or around schools and you hear stories of setbacks and struggle — heaps of qualitative data suggesting a staggering scale of generational loss.
As usual, those who were already the most marginalized have paid the heaviest price. The pandemic exacerbated existing disruptions and placed greater strain on finances and time, particularly in large urban districts and small rural ones tasked with educating children from families struggling economically.
We like to tell ourselves that the United States is a great meritocracy, but wealth and levels of family education continue to play outsized roles in dictating a child’s likelihood of academic success long before she learns her ABCs. The simple truth is that kids come to school from widely different circumstances, and these influence their ability to thrive, independent of whatever innate intelligence or drive they may possess. The pandemic made these differences more acute.
The United States does possess a system (or more accurately, a collection of thousands of systems) that, if nurtured and respected, could foster greater equality of opportunity. And it is exactly the institution that is now struggling the most: public education. America’s public schools were once the envy of the world as engines of opportunity and upward mobility. If the nation had the will, they could return to that status once again.
Our public schools certainly weren’t perfect in the past, especially during legal racial segregation, when the lie of “separate but equal” (separate is never equal) helped enshrine white supremacy. The segregated schools of the Jim Crow Deep South were a shameful injustice and a stain on our national identity. They were inconsistent with our founding documents, which spoke eloquently about equality among people. Of course there was (and remains, to some extent) de facto segregation throughout America based on who lives in what neighborhoods. Well-financed suburban schools were often part of the draw of “white flight” from urban districts.
The very ethos of public education should be one of inclusion for America’s diverse population. It should be a place where children of different backgrounds come together to learn both from teachers and from each other. Our schools should be places that allow students to wrestle with what it means to be part of this great country, including understanding America’s uneven and often bloody road to greater equality.
Sadly, in recent years, we have seen a grave regression from these noble goals. Our schools and school districts have become fiercely contested frontlines in an era of stepped-up culture wars. As reactionary political forces target what we teach our children, it is no accident that truth, empathy, and our democratic values have become casualties.
A chief concern is how and what we teach about our history, particularly the Black experience, and race and ethnicity more generally. We have written here before about the shameful whitewashing of racial violence and injustice, including slavery, by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. But this effort is not limited to him or that state. There is a national movement to not tell the full — and unfortunately tragic — reality of race in American history and how it continues to shape the nation.
Another serious concern is the othering of LGBTQ+ students and teachers. After years of progress, we see a wave of intolerance spread across America, including in our schools.
Few institutions in American life are as essential to the continuation of our democracy as the public schools. In a time of ascendent autocracy, attacks on our schools — how they are run, what they teach, what books they have in their libraries — are among the most pernicious, pathetic, and painful assaults on the health of our nation.
Several months back, Texas Monthly ran a striking piece of journalism with the headline, “The Campaign to Sabotage Texas’s Public Schools.” It tells a story that extends beyond the raucous school board meetings and book banning campaigns that have gotten the most attention. There is a movement afoot, and not just in Texas, to destroy public schools more generally, to privatize education through vouchers and other means.
In this context, the various culture fights become battles in a larger war over the very future and viability of public education:
Taken individually, any of these incidents may seem like a grassroots skirmish. But they are, more often than not, part of a well-organized and well-funded campaign executed by out-of-town political operatives and funded by billionaires in Texas and elsewhere. “In various parts of Texas right now, there are meetings taking place in small and large communities led by individuals who are literally providing tutorials—here’s what you say, here’s what you do,” said H. D. Chambers, the recently retired superintendent of Alief ISD, in southwest Harris County. “This divisiveness has been created that is basically telling parents they can’t trust public schools. It’s a systematic erosion of the confidence that people have in their schools.
The ideal of quality, integrated public schools for all children in the United States epitomizes the promise of our country’s founding as a place of equality and opportunity for all. It thus makes sense that would-be autocrats and protectors of privilege would seek to undermine our public schools by whatever means necessary. We must see this as what it is: as much a threat to the nation as was the violent storming of our Capitol.
The future of the United States depends on an educated and empathetic citizenry. It requires us to share a sense of common purpose and recognize our common humanity. It requires an environment that allows every child to thrive and see themselves included in the American story. It requires quality public education. Full stop.
A historic battle to save this institution and the very idea of good public schools has been underway for some time. It is now intensifying. Attention must be paid.
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