Friday, July 4, 2014

Without Public Education, There is No Republic

"A republic madam, if you can keep it."

That is what Benjamin Franklin famously said to a passerby when she asked him what the Constitutional Convention of 1787 had given the country.

I know this is the day that we celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence, but in many ways, the document that followed 11 years later is the more important of the two.

The Declaration declared what we were not -- subjects of a king -- and described our aspirations.

The Constitution declares what kind of nation we are, and how we intend to go about building it -- and continues to do so.

It is, however, an imperfect document by design.

For example: The reason the Constitution did not free the slaves is that do have done so then would have meant the dissolution of the nation.

Politics, even then, is the art of the possible.

So the founders wisely left some things for us to take care of later.

We are not doing a very good job.

And the place where we're really falling down is education.

The founders worried that democracy would fail if attempted on such a large scale. It had never been done before and the only successful democracies, which had not lasted, were rarely practiced in a place much larger than a city state, Athens being the most obvious example.

They reasoned the only things that could overcome the problems of an uninformed set of voters spread out and isolated over a broad area being given the power of the vote were:

1) the ability to communicate on a nationwide basis, and
2) an education system that ensured those voters could understand and interpret for themselves what was being communicated.

This is the part of the blog where I provide some quotes from the founders to shore up my case:
  • "I consider knowledge to be the soul of the republic, and, as the weak and wicked are generally in alliance, as much care should be taken to diminish the number of the former as of the later. Education is the way to do this, and nothing should be left undone to afford all ranks of people the means of obtaining a proper degree of it at a cheap and easy rate." -- John Jay
  • "Learned institutions ought to be the favorite objects with every free people. They throw that light over the public mind which is the best security against crafty and dangerous encroachments of the public liberty." -- James Madison
  • "Educate and inform the whole mass of the people ... they are the only sure reliance of the preservation of our liberty." -- Thomas Jefferson
  • "A Bible and a newspaper in every house, a good school in every district -- all studied and appreciated as they merit -- are the principal support of virtue, morality, and civil liberty." -- Ben Franklin
  • "The best means of forming a manly, virtuous and happy people will be found in the right education of youth. Without this foundation, every other means, in my opinion, must fail." -- George Washington
So now that you're convinced the founders considered education important -- I mean Thomas Jefferson not only instituted public schools in Virginia, he founded the University of Virginia and considered it his greatest achievement -- ask yourself, how are we doing in that department?

To say that public education is in crisis in America and right here in Pennsylvania is an understatement.

At the root of the debate is an understandable desire to measure what our taxes are paying for, butting up against the belief that the value of a good education (and by extension, a good teacher) is incalculable.

One side of the debate demands tests scores and, more recently, teacher and school evaluation matrices to try to get some kind of accountability built into the system.

This is an understandable impulse and not to be dismissed out of hand. After all, if the value of a good teacher is incalculable, so is the damage a bad one can inflict.

Less understandable is the tendency to cleave to the idea that private industry can do a better job at teaching children than the local school district, simply because its private industry.

If you can do it better, prove it.

So far, particularly with cyber charter schools, the proof remains elusive.

One of the largest is K12 Inc., which, in Pennsylvania, runs Agora Cyber Charter.

For those interested in accountability, Agora  has never. Once. Met any measure of adequacy set by those who clamor for more accountability.

Yet, it continues to draw tax money unmolested in the same way those "failing" public schools we love to label do, schools whose students perform far better than those taught by Agora.

Happily for the executives of Agora, they continue to collect $2,000 per student in salary which, with with 75,000 students, means $21 million of taxpayer in the pockets of eight executives who run a school that fails children they are paid to help.

Certainly, not all charter schools are failures, and we should learn and adopt the best of those that succeed, but where is the outrage over THESE failing schools?

As any scientist will tell you (you learn this in school by the way) you cannot start an experiment with the conclusion, only a hypothesis.

This experiment with "school choice" has run its course and the conclusion is, some charter schools work better than public schools, some don't. But almost zero cyber-charters perform better than public schools.

There have been some successes, and they should be allowed to continue, but its time to put the focus back on the schools the founders knew were this democracy's only hope.

Lord knows, no public school is perfect and I have had my differences with how the Pottstown School District is educating my son.

But this is part of the process of raising children and my wife and I have done what we can to try to make those schools better, not abandon them.

But making them better has now given way to fighting to keep them from getting worse.

And the voters are starting to notice.

For the first time, registered Pennsylvania voters polled by Franklin and Marshall have listed education as their top concern in the coming gubernatorial election.

I confess, I don't know as much about Tom Wolf's education plans as I should, and I intend to remedy that.

But I know, and I think the majority of voters in Pennsylvania know, what Tom Corbett's record on funding education is.

We live in a capitalist society and in a capitalist society, money matters.

No, before you say it, I am not advocating "throwing money" at the problems in our schools, but
starving them of the funding they need to provide even the most basic education isn't doing our children any favors.

After all, as Ben Franklin once said (sorry, couldn't resist one more): ""Genius without education is like silver in the mine."

We are headed into extraordinarily difficult times; climate change, economic upheaval, a world-wide terrorist threat.

I'll be blunt.

Stupid, uneducated children will become stupid, uneducated adults who will make stupid decisions and make things worse.

We are going to need as many geniuses as we can muster to understand the nuances of an increasingly complex world.

Starving our public schools is not doing our democracy or our future any favors.

And that's worth considering on the day we celebrate the birth of that democracy.

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