Tom on Point: Picking the wrong fight

Let’s be honest: Not everyone likes public education. Some people are committed to undermining this institution by depriving it of necessary funding, burdening it with excessive regulations, and deliberately painting it as a failure despite overwhelming evidence that it is educating more students at a higher level than ever before. If you’re determined to hurt public schools, truth-telling hardly serves your purpose.

Critics of public education are adept at creating a negative environment in which their attacks are likely to resonate. Pejorative terms come in handy if you’re engaged in a smear campaign. Take for example the frequently deployed moniker “government schools” —a term that appeals only to those who think any publicly funded enterprise is a waste of time and money.

We quickly can stipulate that public schools do receive tax dollars. But they have attributes that most “government” activities do not—namely, the overwhelming support of those they serve. Public opinion polls for years have consistently demonstrated that parents believe the public schools their children attend are doing a very good job. (Their opinion of public education nationally may be somewhat muted, but what counts most is how they view the schools they visit regularly and whose effectiveness they know best.)

One would be hard-pressed to think of any other service of the public sector that enjoys such staunch support by the people who directly benefit from it—consistently, over an extended period, in virtually all areas of the country. There likely are many reasons for this, the most important of course being that public schools in most places are places of learning and personal growth for students. 

Another reason is that the parents and others who rate their schools so highly do not think of them as a governmental activity at all. They are, instead, viewed as a community enterprise, one to which they feel a direct connection and ownership. Nothing else even comes close – not libraries, roads and infrastructure, or even public safety. Schools are the lifeblood of a community. Most people attended a public school, send or have sent their children to one, and have innumerable family members who can say the same. Connections are deep and personal.

The lynchpin to all this is the school board, comprised of local residents who set policy and ensure that schools are meeting the needs of the people they serve. School board members are special people who volunteer hundreds of hours a year to their typically unpaid leadership role. They are a last vestige of true citizen service. Yes, they are government officials in the strictest sense but, to their constituents, they are Mary, Sam, Clarice, Juan or thousands of others who are visible and approachable—neighbors, fellow worshipers, friends, work colleagues. They are of the community; they represent a vital link between what the public wants its schools to be and the decisions necessary to make that happen.

Some people try to tear down public schools, but they are not fighting government; they are taking on communities across the country. No wonder those who know public schools best stand up for them every day.

Thomas J. Gentzel ( is NSBA’s executive director and CEO. Follow Gentzel on Twitter @Tom_NSBA.

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