Last week, one of Stephen Colbert’s guests was a former mail carrier named Phil Rubio, who raised the alarm about the potential demise of a basic government service, the US Post Office. Dr. Rubio explained that the Post Office is a rather strange government/business hybrid, where it is controlled by Congress, but expected to cover its expenses through the revenue it generates. Yet it is not supposed to compete directly with the United Parcel Service or FedEx.
When Stephen Colbert asked Dr. Rubio why we should care about the Post Office, he replied: “Universal service.” He pointed out that the Post Office adds two million addresses a year, takes care of our changes of address, and charges the same flat rate for a letter whether it is bound for an address around the corner, or one in the farthest corner of the nation.
There are now about 4,000 local post offices scheduled to be closed, though we have heard little about this from the media.
Instead we hear that this service is wasteful, and that it must be privatized.
The dialogue about the Postal Service sounds eerily familiar. Universal service is the hallmark of our local public schools as well. Unlike private, parochial and many charter schools, we accept all students, from all walks of life. The Post Office cannot refuse to deliver to an address because the road is too bumpy, and we cannot refuse students who come to school hungry or traumatized by violence.
Like the Post Office, our schools have been assailed as bastions of lazy, union-protected government workers. The very idea that we might be motivated by a desire to serve our students is denied. It was revealed more than a year ago that teachers spend more than a billion dollars from our own pockets to support learning in our classrooms. Teachers often provide basic supplies, like binders, pencils and paper. And as these supplies are cut from school budgets, even greater burdens fall on teachers.
Unfortunately, the fact that many of our schools serve the poor and disenfranchised does not offer us much credit in some quarters. As John Kuhn, a local school district superintendent from Texas, declared last Spring, “We say, send us your poor, send us your homeless, the children of your afflicted and your addicted. Send us your kids who don’t speak English, y nosotros le hablamos en español. Send us your special needs children, we will not turn them away.” However, the most conservative among us do not believe we should even offer a free public education to students who are undocumented immigrants.
The very idea of public service has been tarnished by those who have blind faith in the wisdom of the marketplace. But our schools, like our post offices, are not driven only to make money. Public schools are a service which depends on government funding. Some conservatives have turned taxes and government itself into the great bogeyman of modern society. And just as with mail delivery, there are eager profiteers, currently posing as “education reformers,” ready to take over profitable segments of the education “market.” The demise of the public sector is a very real possibility - and local public schools may soon join post offices across the country, if we do not rally the support of our communities.
Our teacher unions have been vilified for negotiating on behalf of teachers. But unions are the original grassroots organizations, and as we see class sizes soar across the country, we are reminded that the working conditions our unions negotiate for teachers are the learning conditions for our students. If our unions are eliminated or silenced, we will lose a powerful voice for public education.
Next Tuesday, Sep. 27, there will be rallies in local communities to save the post office. Go here for more information. Let’s take a stand for public service!
What do you think? Are our public schools, like local post offices, members of an endangered species? How can we generate support for public service?
The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.