My Speech at the March for Public Education

Last Saturday, I was privileged to take part in this state’s March for Public Education down in Lincoln. I had the opportunity to speak to the many people that came out to march on a hot, humid July day at our capitol. It was a profoundly humbling experience to speak about political activism under the phrase carved in stone: “The Salvation of the State is the Watchfulness of the Citizen.”

Getting ready to lead the march with one of the event organizers Mina Davis and Westside Education Association President (and 2010 Nebraska Teacher of the Year) Michael Fryda

Here is what I said to the crowd last weekend:

The idea of public schools in this country literally predates even the Constitution itself. Back when the US was very young and trying to organize its territory, they passed the Land Ordinance Act of 1785 required that land be set aside in every town for public schools. So to me, defending the institution of public schools is as patriotic of an act as defending the principles of the Declaration and the Constitution themselves.

What they envisioned as public schools in the 18th century certainly is far from what we consider to be strong public schooling today. As was their vision of who could vote, or who the citizens were, or even who was considered to be a person. We’ve come a long way since the founding of this country, and I think to the Constitution, specifically the preamble that “we the people in order to form a more perfect union.” MORE. Perfect. The founders of this country set a bar that is constantly moving beyond us as each generation picks up the torch and realizes — “Nope. There’s still more we can do. We can still be better.” It is a goal we’ll never reach, but one we should never stop reaching for. And I think that’s the mentality we should have for our public schools.

So I challenge you to consider four major things today. We have fought some hard battles the past few years to maintain our public schools in Nebraska. This past spring we defeated a number of bills that would have done real harm. But we cannot just keep maintaining. The first thing we need to do is to move beyond fighting to maintain — we need to move forward with our public schools. We need to be more. perfect.

I think that’s why some folks have a negative view of us and our schools. Secretary DeVos spoke to ALEC two days ago and called us “defenders of the status quo.” They assume we want to throw on the parking brake and stay still. That we’re cozy with the status quo and don’t want to rock the boat. You and I know that this could not be further from the truth. We’ve been fighting these bills because we know we can’t drive forward if someone is trying to throw our car into reverse! We need to recapture the narrative. We need to show that vouchers, charters, mandatory third grade retention — these bills don’t just threaten schools as they are, they stop us from progressing towards even better education. Towards a more perfect public school system.

Nebraska has amazing public schools. We know the stats. But just as we must profess a clear vision for the future, the second thing we must do is take up the mantle and be the toughest critics of our schools that we love so much. WE must demand improvements with more ferocity than any of the detractors, especially the privatizers. We have the 3rd best graduation rate in the country, yes. But we also need to acknowledge that we have the 9th worst graduation gap between white and black students, and that needs to change NOW. We need to recognize the need to recruit more educators of color, to seriously champion the cause of equity, and to make sure that all students truly have access to the educational environment that they deserve.

Third, we all need to be political. ALL decisions about public schools are political decisions. Whether I have textbooks for my kids is based on a vote and a budget somewhere. The curriculum I teach is based on a vote. Whether we have funding for another teacher to get class sizes down is based on a vote by some elected officials. And there is a difference between being political and being partisan. I do not care what their party affiliation is, if they are truly committed to strong public schools, I will work with them. And remind them — all elected officials — that a budget is a moral document. Where are they putting the dollars? What do they want to prioritize?

Fourth and finally, we need to recruit more people into this fight. I don’t need to preach to you about the value of education, you’re marching on a hot July day. You get it. But we need everyone to understand that their voice is needed. Not just our senators. Not just NSEA. Not just Stand for Schools. Not just teachers. Not just you. All Nebraskans. We are fighting for our future. As a community. As a state. As a nation. We are fighting to give kids their future. My good friend Nate Bowling says it often — nothing but modern medicine has saved more lives than public education.

So retake the narrative and show Nebraska how we plan to make our public schools even better. Be the toughest critic of our schools and advocate evidence based solutions. Get politically active. And get more people to join our fight. Because we’re not just fighting for ourselves and our community, we’re fighting for our future. And that’s something worth fighting for.

There was so much more that I wanted to say, but you can only fit so much into five minutes. But one more thing I would want to say here is this: no entity is worth defending automatically. It has to earn it. And Nebraska schools have demonstrated a consistent willingness to adapt, to evolve, and to address their shortcomings head on. Look at the news coming out of Druid Hill Elementary for evidence of this. I defend our public schools because they are the great equalizer, a vehicle that when running properly (that’s a big ask, and we’re not there yet) can truly guarantee that all kids receive the education and opportunities they deserve.