Until the past two decades our society has valued public education practically and philosophically. In the practical sense, public schools in the United States have been able to operate on a mammoth scale with 90,000 public schools in 15,000 school districts across 50 states and Puerto Rico—a relatively loose system that serves over 50 million children and adolescents and employs 3.5 million teachers.
Our society’s commitment to a public system of education began in the eighteenth century. In 1785, pronouncing public purpose and public ownership as necessary for America’s schools, John Adams declared: “The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.”
We begin the 2012-2013 school year, in contrast, with candidates of both political parties advocating for privatized alternatives rather than thinking deeply about what we are called to do to fulfill society’s commitment to providing all children a path to a promising life.
In 1991, General Synod 18 challenged the United Church of Christ: “The public schools belong to us, the people, and are controllable by democratic means. If we have the will, we can act to ensure that all schools offer equal education for all children, that the funding, multicultural and academic offerings, and enrichment programs which exist in one school system exist in or are accessible to all schools and all children. We can and must act to protect the public schools against those who slander them out of hidden anti-democratic, racial or class biases. But most particularly, we must protect the children in those schools, for such is not only the kingdom of heaven but also the future of our country and of the yet-to-be-realized democratic dream of equal opportunity for all…”
This commitment to education as a collective obligation is a hollow statement unless, in this new gilded age, we can learn to speak with one voice to turn the attention of our political leaders and candidates for office to the urgent necessity of improving the public schools in our poorest communities. Privatization undermines public purpose and the capacity of government to protect the public through well-regulated and equitably funded institutions. Poverty, income inequality, and segregation by income as well as race are public problems best addressed systemically on a scale that can be accomplished only by government. Large infusions of federal and state assistance will be necessary to compensate for the wide variation in local taxing capacity.
We invite you to explore two new resources to help your congregation consider the issues:
- Repairing The Breach: Questions for Federal & State Candidates in this 2012 Election Year
- The Public Purpose of Public Education, 2013 JWM Message on Public Education
Then we urge you to insist that candidates for office commit to improving public education for all children and especially those in poverty, instead of offering privatized alternatives.
Education writer Mike Rose writes profoundly about the dilemma in which we find ourselves in this 2012 election season: “When a local public school is lost to incompetence, indifference, or despair, it should be an occasion for mourning, for it is a loss of a particular site of possibility. When public education itself is threatened, as it seems to be threatened now—by cynicism and retreat, by the cold rapture of the market, by thin measure and the loss of civic imagination—when this happens, we need to assemble what the classroom can teach us, articulate what we come to know, speak it loudly, hold it fast to the heart.”