Among the many institutions that seem to be under attack these days, the federal Department of Education and public schools are of great concern. Public education predates the federal Department of Education, but the Department has played an important role in raising standards and expanding access for all children. Left to their own devices, state and local school boards would go in many different directions that may leave quality and access more to chance than legal requirements.
I am reminded regularly by my constituents of their support for quality public schools, but last week I was reminded also of the range of controversy surrounding public education. A postcard I received in the mail had a picture of a yellow school bus on it with a caption: “The humanist machine.” The card was from a group called Deconstructing the Coliseum whose stated purpose is “to eliminate humanist political policies, eliminate the machine (the civil government school system) that produces humanist politicians.” The text of the card goes on to explain that “The civil government is using force and coercion to advance its version of truth (humanism), under the guise of ‘public education.’ Thus, civil government schools must be abolished.” Although this group has a Virginia address, I do not think that it would have many supporters in our community. Their ultraconservative views are likely to get the attention of some downstate legislators.
As concerning are the views that are being espoused by the current federal Secretary of Education. As I understand her plan, public schools would be replaced by charter schools. Charter schools are held up by some as a panacea to cure ills real and concocted about public schools, but their results have been very mixed in the places where they have been opened. The main issue for the proponents seems to be control. Rather than having elected or appointed school boards set school policy there are proposals that groups of parents would control the charter school curriculum, standards, and requirements without further supervision. There is a real concern that charter schools could lead to renewed segregation of the schools along racial and class lines.
Even with all their critics and those who remember wistfully how schools were when they attended, today’s public schools do an excellent job. Open to all students they bring out the best in our children. They attempt to prepare our children for an unknown future. The school boards struggle every year with meeting needs that are greater than the resources available to them.
Whatever the perceived needs are in educating our children, there are none so great that would require the getting rid of “government schools” or replacing them with charter schools. We need to look at paying teachers more to attract the best and the brightest to teaching as a career; the current deficit of $4,000 under the national average that exists in Virginia is not defensible. And we need in this season of teacher appreciation to thank the teachers for the exceptional work that they do.