A Mirror for America Essay
The United States of America was founded on the principle of “liberty and justice for all”, and in keeping with the idea of equal opportunity, the provision of public education has long been a primary role of the American government. At the core of this institution is the idea that education should be a right afforded to everyone, and the more opportunities we have to learn, the more prosperous we will grow as individuals and as a society. To have a system of public education is one of the strongest methods by which we can create, maintain, and grow a civilized society.
In the early 20th century, the great American educator and philosopher John Dewey told us that in order to have a democratic society, our everyday institutions should also be democratic — especially our schools. This call for democracy in our daily lives has been echoed by many great thinkers before and after Dewey, as well as countless ordinary Americans. This is a testament to not only the importance of public education, but to the importance of democracy itself.
Unfortunately, our institution of public education has begun to erode in the last few decades. Our schools are a microcosm of the growing gap between the rich and the poor, and the funding mechanisms for education do little to combat social inequities, often entrenching social inequities that already exist. The opportunity gap between the rich and everyone else continues to grow, and our schools are one of the institutions most directly affected by social inequities and public policy.
Public schools are funded inequitably, which widens rather than shrinks the opportunity gap, but that is not the only problem with education policy as it currently exists. The fundamental idea of public education has been under attack as investors and others have learned that there is much more money to be made in the private sector. As a result of this and other political miscalculations, the teaching profession as a whole has become perpetually overworked, overstressed, and de-professionalized. Treating teachers as professionals is a good idea in its own right, but it is also a good idea for the benefit of the students. Teacher shortages grip the nation as fewer young people wish to enter the profession, and seasoned teachers decide that they cannot bear the profession any longer. This is the result of diminished autonomy and respect, lower pay than professionals with similar levels of education, and having to take on the burden of so many children coming from impoverished and conflicted environments.
It is the role of public officials to support the institution of public education so that its dream can be realized by all citizens. This includes implementing fair funding mechanisms, support for schools and students who need it most, and creating the right conditions for teachers to flourish and do their jobs well.
Public officials must push for federal, state, and local governments to redesign education policy so that the opportunity gap is closed rather than magnified. This means adjusting funding mechanisms so that public schools are not relying directly on the wealth of their communities through the property tax. It is regressive and counterintuitive for rich districts to receive far more wealth and resources for their schools than their poor counterparts simply because taxes for education funding are levied at a local level. Poor students need more support and resources than the rich, not less.
Education policy must support teachers, schools, and students — rather than punish and discourage them. There are many factors to consider here. The first is the right to bargain collectively. Public officials must recognize and expand the rights of educational faculty, whether they come from public, private, or charter schools, to unionize and demand fair treatment.
In addition, teachers must receive adequate pay and benefits. When teachers struggle to enter the middle class, support a child, or pay rent they are less likely to focus their time and energy on teaching and are more likely to quit their jobs for another profession that will offer them more economic security. If public officials push to ensure a professional salary for educators teachers will be more attracted to the profession — not because they want to be rich, but because they don’t want to struggle just to pay their bills.
Furthermore, increased autonomy must be given to teachers and other local educators to design schools and classrooms in ways that are fitting to their own students and local cultures. Albert Einstein once spoke to a crowd of higher education students and teachers, where he said that the best way for students to learn and love learning was for the teacher to “…be given extensive liberty in the selection of the material to be taught and the methods of teaching employed by him. For it is true also of him that pleasure in the shaping of his work is killed by force and exterior pleasure.” If teachers are not in control of their own teaching, they will find another profession or not enter the profession in the first place. The teachers who will be most discouraged are the best teachers, who don’t need non-educators telling them exactly how and what to teach.
Supporting a healthy society, and thus healthy students, is another part of the government’s role in supporting public schools. If students come into a teacher’s classroom and their parents have no jobs, or low paying jobs — or maybe the students have a broken home, a violent neighborhood, barely enough food to eat, and all sorts of other problems — the teachers are already starting far behind where they should be. Teacher morale is also low in this case, because the teacher is then expected to handle all the problems created by a vastly unequal society and other problems that were created outside the school. Every piece of public policy that reduces social disparity will help teachers and students, and will ultimately aid our democratic society.
Finally, education policy must be designed to check the threats of privatization and monetization. The NAACP recently released a statement opposing the expansion of charter schools until the following conditions were met:
- Charter schools are subject to the same transparency and accountability standards as public schools
- Public funds are not diverted to charter schools at the expense of the public school system
- Charter schools cease expelling students that public schools have a duty to educate and
- Charter schools cease to perpetuate de facto segregation of the highest performing children from those whose aspirations may be high but whose talents are not yet as obvious.
The bottom line is that public education is a public good and the right of every citizen. It cannot be a way for investors and others to simply make more money at the expense of everyone else, and it cannot be a way to segregate and alienate students along lines of class, race, or ability.
Perhaps most important of all in designing the right kind of education policy is that educators must have their voices heard, and must be in the lead roles in crafting such policy. High-ranking officials in government education departments, for example, should be educators with many years of classroom teaching experience. No one else is better equipped to listen to the concerns of teachers and implement changes that will encourage educators to operate within their strengths rather than restricting them into technocratic obedience and despair. Teachers do not have to make all the decisions regarding politics and public policy, but they should be the major consultants for professional decisions, just as doctors are for the medical profession.
Public education is an essential institution in a democratic society. It can grow and mend our democracy, but only if it is first respected and mended itself. It is the duty of public officials to use policy to assure funding equity, educator respect and autonomy, bargaining rights, and healthy students and communities.