Guest Editorial: The importance of public education

By Dr. Bob Dorsett
Special to the Herald Times
RBC | “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people . . . they are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”~Thomas Jefferson
Universal, free public education is one of the pillars of our democracy. As evidenced in the Jefferson quotation above, the founding fathers recognized its vital importance. George Washington helped to establish schools for indigent children and orphans and he advocated the establishment of a national university. Benjamin Franklin founded the Philadelphia Academy, which later became the University of Pennsylvania. John Adams, John Quincy Adams, James Madison, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton and their colleagues all spoke to the necessity of an informed citizenry.
Starting in Massachusetts in the mid 1800’s, Horace Mann developed the first system of free public education as a means to build “civic virtue and character.” The second major architect of public education, a century later, was John Dewey. In contrast to Mann’s highly structured classrooms and curriculum, Dewey advocated an interactive educational environment in which to build civic consciousness and to prepare individuals not just with employable skills but with the capacity to meet their own life goals and potential. Especially in the years following WWII, as the population shifted from farms to the cities, enrollment in public schools burgeoned. The Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, in 1954 guaranteed the right, established in the Fourteenth Amendment, that every child should have equal access to education.
In part as a backlash to desegregation following Brown v. Board, litigants and legislatures in recent years have eroded that right, especially in blighted districts of large urban centers. Children in poverty lack the resources—teachers, books, libraries, laboratories, etc.—necessary for a good education. We are failing as a nation to provide all our children adequate opportunity to learn.
Instead of investing to correct the underlying problems of poverty and de facto segregation, we have in recent years chosen to blame the schools for societal problems, impose unattainable and unrealistic goals based on standardized tests, and punish communities with school closures if the schools do not meet those artificial standards.
The school choice program, vouchers, and charter schools nominally would allow parents to transfer their children to “high performing” schools in other neighborhoods. Well-intentioned as these programs might be, they show no benefit compared to adequately funded public schools, and they aggravate the underlying problems. Test scores of students attending charter schools are no better, on average, than students in public schools. Vouchers siphon taxpayer money from public schools into private schools and for-profit charters. And school choice, as it has been applied in large districts, leaves behind, in failing schools, the very students who are struggling the most. Those students have no choice.
We are fortunate in Meeker and Rangely to have sound public schools with highly trained, experienced educators. The Meeker School District is among the top rank in Colorado, Accredited with Distinction. Certainly it is the right of every parent to choose the education for their child, and the more time a parent spends helping a child, the more the child learns. Certainly, also, the home is the center for moral and religious education. But why deny a child the opportunity to learn from experts in a variety of subjects? Why limit a child’s opportunity to learn the social skills necessary for participation in the wider society? Why limit a child’s opportunity to form lifelong friendships? Why limit a child’s exposure to the world of ideas and the opportunity to learn critical thinking skills, testing those ideas? All those opportunities are available in the public schools.
Public schools are at the heart of our democracy and of the community in small towns. People gather in the schools for concerts and athletic events and plays. Schools provide contacts in the lobbies at intermission, at concessions during half-time, and waiting to pick up kids after school – time for parents to share experiences and to catch up on news. How are you? Everything going OK? What do you know? It used to be the same was true in neighborhood schools in the cities. We would be well advised to rejuvenate those schools. Privatizing the system with vouchers, charters, and “choice” tears communities apart.

References: Mathis, William J. and Tina M. Trujillo. 2016. “Learning from the federal market-based reforms.” National Education Policy Center.
Ravitch, Diane. 2013. “Reign of Error.” Basic Books.