Sunday, August 10, 2008

Don't Give Up on Public Education

During this, my first official week as president of the VEA, I was asked to write an op ed. piece for the Richmond Times Dispatch. The request came as the result of recent coverage of Delegate Chris Saxman’s announcement of a new “bipartisan,” nonprofit organization promoting school choice and a recent Washington Post editorial offered by Sen. Joe Lieberman on the public schools in Washington, D. C. I was asked to write about something “good” about public schools in an effort to provide a balance.

I am providing a copy of what I submitted for you in case you don’t get to see the editorial in print. It is entitled, “Don't Give Up on Public Education.”

During this past school year, I became aware of the fact that one of my students—a new Latina in the fifth grade—had a problem sometimes getting to school on time. She periodically overslept and missed the school bus. Her parents, who spoke little English, were unable (or unwilling) to drive her to school, so she would call the school office to ask if someone could come get her. As far as I know, someone always did. Another child was reported to the principal because he kept falling asleep in class and just didn’t seem interested in his schoolwork. The teacher had talked to him and he wouldn’t tell her why he was so listless, so the teacher asked the principal if she might try to get to the bottom of what was going on with him. After much coaxing, he finally admitted—embarrassed but worn down—that he was hungry. It wasn’t yet the end of the month, and there was no food in the house. As a result, he had been coming to school for several days in a row with no breakfast and no morning snack. The principal pulled a snack from the stash she kept in her office and told him the next time he came to school with no breakfast, he was to come straight to her.

Public schools are succeeding every day in ways that go beyond academic achievement with students like these by offering not only a free and appropriate public education, but also a safe haven. We at the VEA absolutely believe that we owe it to our children to ensure that they have every opportunity to succeed in the 21st century. That is, in fact, what we are all about and what we advocate for every single day. We vigorously disagree, however, with proponents of school choice programs on how to provide that opportunity to each and every child. I believe that the promise of vouchers and tuition tax credits programs is a false one for too many of the children who need our public schools the most.

Instead of dreaming up so many different ways to abandon our public schools, wouldn’t it be more helpful and productive if folks spent the same amount of time and energy trying to work for meaningful reforms within the system? Politicians want to blame teachers for being in the way of school reform, but I would suggest that teachers haven’t yet been asked to be a meaningful part of the solution. Instead we are just being blamed for the problems caused in large part by policies that were adopted as short term fixes for long term problems. Practicing educators would love to be part of the conversation around how to fix some of the problems that exist in the current system—just give us a place at the table and listen to us for a change!

Let us be very clear. Public schools are not perfect. They never have been. But our public schools should certainly not be abandoned by the very public they strive to serve. The fact of the matter is that with all of its various problems, public schools in America need to be defended and protected because it is there that the vast majority of our nation’s citizens learn about what it really means to be an American. In our public schools, the principles of freedom and democracy and what is fair and right are taught as part of the core curriculum. Everyday, the ideals of our nation are taught not just from textbooks but from the practice of bringing together diverse members of the community with every effort made toward getting along and learning together. In spite of their problems, both real and imagined, public schools are the best hope that we have for producing more than just a select few students who are ready to tackle the challenges of the 21st century. I believe that our last real hope for the future lies with our public schools and its preservation and promotion. I urge the readers of these words to get involved in the public schools in their communities and make contributions and changes there—where every child has a reason to hope that someone cares deeply enough to protect his or her right to a free and appropriate public school education.”