PUBLIC EDUCATION – OUR NATION’S GREATEST STRENGTH AND WHY WE MUST FIGHT TO PROTECT IT
From our earliest days as a nation, our investment in our public institutions has set us apart from other countries and has been our greatest strength. As a Nation, we have ingrained the value of education in the foundation of American Democracy as education is essential to:
- Ensuring an electorate that can fully value and protect our democratic rights and freedoms.
- Providing opportunity for all Americans to become not only economically self-sufficient, but to be able to do better than those who came before them.
- Unifying a diverse population and promoting religious tolerance, freedom of speech, and equality for all.
These missions are embedded in the ideals set forth as far back as our Founding Fathers. In George Washington’s 1796 farewell address to the nation, he noted the importance of educating the American public as a means to grow the country economically as well as to create a well-informed populace to participate in the newly formed democracy. 1 Similarly, Thomas Jefferson argued that democracy required that all citizens must have sufficient education for a well-informed electorate. 1In furtherance of promoting education, Congress implemented the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 stating that “religion, morality, and knowledge were necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education should forever be encouraged.”
In the 1840’s, a structured system of public education emerged in the United States. Education pioneers promoted common schools and urged education reforms as a means to enhance the economic opportunities for all and to create a common culture for a very diverse population. Horace Mann usually gets the credit for our modern version of education. He fought to secure tax funding for public schools and keep religious education separate from public instruction. His greatest achievement was his role in starting the common school system. He believed all students should receive the same level of education. His idea of the common school was one that was open to all classes and would break down class distinctions and ensure social and national unity.
Since 1965, Head Start, our nation’s first publicly funded preschool program has been providing critical early childhood support for young children. As a component of President Johnson’s “War on Poverty”, Head Start has provided families an essential program for supporting and helping their children thrive. 2
Like all institutions in America, public education has had many challenges through the centuries. However, the past four decades have brought unprecedented attacks by Republican lawmakers and special interest groups to undermine, dismantle, or reshape it to meet their own agendas. This has been done under the guise of fiscal responsibility and freedom of choice. But make no mistake about it—the Republican goal has been to limit education so that only the wealthy can afford it and to fundamentally alter our educational system to provide private contractors with corporate welfare.
At both the state and federal levels, Republicans have spent the last several decades passing bills that slash funding to our public schools whereby forcing districts to cut programs, reduce supplies, freeze or rollback teacher salaries, and minimize benefits and retirement plans. At the same time, they have shifted tax dollars to an ever-increasing number of for-profit charter schools, on-line virtual schools, and voucher programs, requiring little proof of improvement over the highly developed, community-based public schools. Due to these cuts, our public schools have been allowed to decline to the point where children in this state have been forced to learn in freezing or boiling classrooms from outdated text books with ceiling tiles falling on their heads during exams in buildings that are infested with rodents and contaminated with black mold.
Our teachers have been forced to pay for their own supplies as they have watched their incomes continue to decline as Republicans continue to gut laws designed to protect the right to bargain with the government over better wages and benefits. One of the most disturbing results of the multi-pronged attack to dismantle our public education system over the last 5 years is the alarming decline in the number of students enrolling in or not finishing teacher preparation programs as well the early exit of teachers currently in our education system. Teachers cite low pay, reduced benefits and pensions, overwork, and an over-emphasis on preparing students for standardized tests as opposed to teaching students how to succeed and function in society.
Republicans would prefer to privatize education and to give taxpayer dollars to for-profit companies with little accountability. Many Republicans advocate that public school teachers should be replaced with laptops and computer programs designed by companies looking to get rich that do not provide our children with the individualized attention that they need to succeed. Of course, Republicans offer no solution for children or school districts who lack the financial resources to purchase these laptops and programs as they effectively propose reforms that reduce our children’s opportunity to an education only to those who can afford it.
The most dangerous current attacks on public education are coming from the Trump administration with his appointment of Betsy Devos as Secretary of Education. She has been a longtime enemy of public education and activist for charters and voucher programs. Since her appointment she has called for $1.4 billion to expand schools of choice including funds directed to charter and private schools and slashing $10.6 billion from after school programs, teacher training, and federal student loans and grants.
The reductions in pell grants and student loan assistance is particularly disturbing as it stands to permanently prevent millions from being able to afford a higher education. Michigan is now ranked by U.S. News as the 45th “best” state in higher education and 35th “best” state in pre-K-12 education. This should come as no surprise as Michigan has the 6th highest in-state public university tuition in the nation and is fifth from the bottom in regards to state support for higher education per full-time student. Michigan higher education students receive about 60% less per student in state support than the national average. The end result: Michigan families are being left behind to pay for rising tuition costs that have increased by 20% from 2011 to 2016.
As Democrats, we have and will continue to support and fight to maintain public education. A strong public education system is as important to our country today as it was at the birth of our new nation. Education is essential to the individual and collective wellbeing. We cannot and will not quit now. Silence is not an option.
We urge all citizens of our great nation to join us in this endeavor to protect and maintain our public education system. CALL your state and federal legislators, write a Letter to the Editor of your local paper and cyber media sights, go to your school’s board meetings and speak out at every opportunity. Ask questions – demand answers. Say it loud and say it proud that we support our children, our families, our public schools, and our public school teachers and public school support staff.
1 – Education of the Masses – US The Rise of Public education in Early America, Ted Brackemyre
2 – Education of the Masses – US The Rise of Public education in Early America, Ted Brackemyre
3 – https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2015/05/18/day-history-creation-head-start