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In Praise of Public Schools

What do these seminal Americans, Thomas Jefferson, John Dewey, Horace Mann, Frederick Douglass, John Adams, and Susan B. Anthony, have in common?  They were all proponents of public education.   John Adams mandated public education in a letter when he explains, “The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expense of it…(the schools) should not be founded by a charity or individuals but maintained at the public expense.”  These Americans had seen first hand the generations of inequality created by separating society into the haves and the have nots, and fervently believed that our country could do better through a system of public education.  I and the majority of Americans believe in public education, but a few believe that the problems attributed to public ed. mandate the formation of private schools which are rumored to provide the best education in the world.  Montanans: “Come to your senses!”  No where in Montana will you find a private school that is going to do a better job at educating your children than the public school down the block.  The myth of private school superiority has been disproven at every turn unless you’re talking about the hundred -year- old- plus private schools that are endowed to their teeth and exist in a few back East.  In order to have that caliber of private school, one would be forking over upwards of $30,000 a year times thirteen and then be looking down the barrel of another four years of even more tuition (and that’s just for one child).  There are people who can afford such tuitions; the middle class American is not one.  Instead, over the years, we have put  what money we can afford toward building a first class public school system.  Political scientist, Benjamin Barber says that “public schools don’t merely serve the public, but rather create the public.”  And what a success story that creation has been!

Over the past century, our public schools have produced architects, doctors, lawyers, house builders, teachers, writers, chemists, scientists, soldiers, Nobel Prize winners, Pulitzer Prize winners, plumbers, FBI agents, contractors, admirals, and a plethora of state and federal workers, and a few bums, to be honest.  True, some of their endeavors may have put these people in the arena of the rich, but by and large, most move within the Middle Class, the backbone of our nation, the people who do the work, pay the bills, and keep our economy going.  They were not privately educated; they attended and graduated from public schools where they were taught what they needed to be taught in order to go on with an education, or receive more training, or start a business of their own. 

Educating most of a large population is, to say the least, a tall order.  It’s the component in comparisons where the apples get mixed up with the oranges, the fact that’s oft over-looked or just not mentioned because it skews the outcome terribly when you want to show that other countries’ schools are superior. Regardless of your intent, you have to consider that the public schools are tasked with dealing with all students: not just the gifted, not just the ones with parents who wait slavishly at home to help Johnny with his next project, but all students:— those with  mental problems or special needs, those who have been beaten, abused, abandoned, raped, and ignored.  Year after year, though, the public schools do what they can, given the limitations of money and the fact that the support for the schools comes from the only tax that people can vote on. 

Licensed by the state and required to keep up with their own educations, the public school teacher deals with thirty to one-hundred and fifty of these kids on a daily basis, slogging through the basics, trying to provide the enrichment, the time, the experience that every student needs and deserves.  Let me tell you, they work hard, and the majority, I believe, have been and continue to be successful.  Of course there are problems, but if, as Robert Niles, a Huffington Post contributor, suggests, “you're a business leader and want to distract people from the fact that more Americans are slipping out of the middle class even as you and your colleagues are getting richer than ever, how convenient would it be to fund foundations and contribute to politicians who will blame poor test scores in the hardest-hit communities on failing schools, instead of the growing child poverty problem that's causing them?”

So my message to you is this: you don’t have to pay thousands in tuition every year in order for your kids to get a good education.  All that will happen with the flurry over privatization of education is that the rich will always be able to buy an education for their kids; the middle class will have to work for it.  Therein lies the secret to why public education is as important as it is: those who have to work for something always gain more out of it than those who are given that thing.  If you have to earn it, you end up with something to be proud of.  That’s the benefit of a public school education: always has been, always will be unless we allow the proponents of privatization to take away our” great equalizer” as Horace Mann called it: public education.  It has leveled the playing field of this country for years, allowing every student the equal opportunity to learn from, grow with, and benefit from a quality education.  So if you’re looking for a get-rich-quick scheme to enable you to send your kids to private school, there aren’t any; but here’s an even better plan to put in the hopper: invest in education in your community.  Make your community the kind of place that affords every one an opportunity to become educated, that values a good education, that wants its children to compete and to live the American promise.  Support your schools, attend their functions, let people know that you believe in the tradition that we, alone, in America have put forth for a century or more: every person deserves an equal chance.  Cue the “Star Spangled Banner” and raise the flag — oh, this is radio — no visuals here. 

This is Patricia Rosenleaf, a retired public school educator who to this day gets goose-bumps when I say “I am a teacher.” 

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