Our founding fathers extolled the importance of a publicly funded system of education but left it to each state to fill in the details and to find ways to pay for it. For two centuries, that vision has been functioning pretty well with needed tweaks to ensure equal access and other Constitutionally-mandated requirements. But here in the 21st century, that dream has been threatened by what appears on its surface to be a taxpayers’ revolt. Citizens across the nation seem to be railing against the cost of public education and other public services. With few notable exceptions, teachers by the thousands are facing layoffs; class sizes are ballooning; art, music and even athletic programs are being eviscerated in state after state. People are fed up with paying for public education or anything else that is managed by government. But is that the real reason? I wish it were as simple as that but it is not. The real root cause is something far more sinister than a simple tax revolt. Stop, look around and take a deep breath. That odor you detect is not the coffee.
K-12 private education in the United States is a big business (nearly 40,000 schools enrolling just over 6 million students) and the largest sector by far consists of private schools connected to religious groups (over 80%). Common sense would suggest that one way to drive traffic to those schools is to make the public option so weak and unattractive that parents will prefer a private school. But those schools charge a fee. What better way to deal with that than to lower out-of-pocket costs supporting public education so that private school becomes not only a better option but it would also be more affordable? That, ladies and gentlemen, is what appears to be happening in this nation. Nobody loves taxes but pleas for lower taxes always…ten out of ten times, have other agendas behind them. In this case, it is to drive students into schools often dominated by religious sects and/or other parochial outlooks and in doing so it extracts more public money that can be used to support public education and puts it into private hands and ultimately into the coffers of private schools. Issues like evolution or social responsibility or explorations of any number of classic and contemporary ideas become non-issues if the child attends schools that never teach them. Many great works of art and literature slowly morph into dusty artifacts in deserted museums and mold-ridden volumes in unused libraries if the only real book worth reading and studying is the Bible or the Koran. Faith may provide life’s meaning and comfort to some but it can also create darkness for others in ways that extinguish a society’s knowledge base, tolerance and enlightened outlook.
We are and have never been a nation of sheep to be led around by self-appointed shepherds. Sheep usually wind up as someone’s sweater or as a main course on someone’s plate. That is and never should be our destiny. To avoid it, we must always have a vibrant, well-staffed system of public education open to all and equal in quality to any system anywhere in the world. This nation’s best weapons are not smart bombs but, rather, a smart, educated citizenry who can compete with and out-think anyone anywhere on this planet. That is what keeps us safe from enemies and despots and that is what will always keep us safe and prosperous.
A healthy society has room for both private and public sector education. They are in many ways complementary. Public education by its very nature of having to serve all kinds of kids from all sorts of backgrounds and belief systems must of necessity be more inclusive and liberal, while religiously-based schools tend to be more conservative and it is that legacy that is often transformed into a conservative adult population. Both are needed in a balanced society. The liberals will try new things and if they work, conservatives may eventually over time help to institutionalize them and integrate them into the larger social value system. Conservatives have been described somewhat unfairly as people who don’t think there is a first time for anything so they act as an air brake to rapid change, an often important safeguard against change merely for the sake of change.
There is only one thing worse than saddling our next generation with debt (which we inexplicably do in our college financial aid “system”); it is to forever condemn them to ignorance. It is unconscionable for any civil society to deliberately under-educate its children. It is immoral, wrong-headed, and, as history shows us again and again, it is always the preamble to the twilight of democracy. I have often quoted Thomas Jefferson who in a letter to Col. Yancey wrote, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free; it expects what never was nor never will be.”
In our society there is plenty of room for both public and private education and we should never allow ourselves the false choice to favor one at the expense of the other. The two systems can co-exist and serve whatever constituents they wish but it is safe to suggest that any form of universal education in which indoctrination trumps objective reality and exposure to the widest array of knowledge is less valuable to a functioning democracy now and forever.
Any public investment in education always pays for itself. It is the only investment that yields guaranteed dividends to the individual and to society and, as it turns out, the more the public invests and the more inclusive its student population, the greater the likely social and economic returns. The vast majority of other public expenses can be identified as the direct offspring of ignorance…a wide array of medical costs, prisons, rehab protocols/facilities and most welfare programs. To continue to pour money into these activities is simply dealing with the effects of ignorance and despair. It is a far better and smarter public investment to support education, high quality education, so that our public dollars by treating the causes of ignorance and despair will eventually lower the need for and the enormous, unending public cost of remediation.
So we must find ways to financially disconnect the education “dots”. Private education should always be an option for those who seek it but it should never become a better option because public education has been deliberately crippled by those with a non-negotiable religious, social or political agenda. People who work tirelessly to undermine public education in order to increase the desirability and affordability of private schools are doing irreparable damage to the future of this democracy. Of all the many pillars that make our temple of freedom viable and strong, universal, quality education and the exchange of ideas in open, informed debate stand as its most powerful structural component. Without it, we all lose!