Embedded in that enterprise are many issues, including how students are taught, how they are tested, how employees are paid and evaluated, how school facilities are designed and constructed, and how related activities like transportation, food service, maintenance, and operations are conducted. The list goes on, involving many stakeholders, interest groups, and public officials. It can be a lively, and often divisive, discussion.
It’s not surprising, then, that public education is highly political. It is funded with tax dollars, making it, by definition, a public enterprise. And, like most things, there are varying perspectives about what should be done and by whom. How much should state government mandate to provide guarantees for all children, and how much flexibility should districts have to enable local needs to be met? What is the appropriate federal role? What is the best delivery system, and what level of oversight should be provided? These are important and legitimate matters of public policy.
The debates that ensue often are frustrating. It can seem as if the same ground constantly is being re-plowed and questions being repeatedly asked. Yet, we are reminded that, as times change, and new people enter the conversation, tackling these issues is essential to ensuring public education remains relevant and has the support it needs for continued success.
This is not about protecting an institution for its own sake; it is a matter of sustaining a fundamental premise of our form of government — that all people need to be well educated and prepared to fulfill the duties of the highest office, citizen. It is not a coincidence that state constitutions guarantee access to public education. (It’s also notable that, in executing this responsibility, state legislatures created school boards as local trustees to ensure that the service is delivered in a manner appropriate for every community.)
Public education is a birthright in America, but its continuation is not guaranteed. It must be defended, and renewed, each generation. The challenges come in many forms, but the most troubling are the many and varied proposals to divert money to other programs, or to the bottom lines of for-profit entities. Public schools encountered opposition when they were created, overcoming objections of those who did not like the idea of paying to educate others’ children and of some ethnic and religious groups that saw it as a threat to the schools they ran for their “own people.” The shape of the opposition may change over time, but the need for a strong system of public education, serving all children regardless of who they are or where they live, remains — assuming, of course, that democracy still matters.