Equity & Diversity Opinion

What It Takes for Families to Support Public Education

By Nancy Flanagan — September 01, 2017 3 min read
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Rolling into Labor Day weekend, there is some moderately good news for public schools and the teachers who work in them: Americans express support for traditional public schools in new poll, even as Trump disparages them.

A majority of public school parents give higher grades—A's and B's—to the traditional public schools in their neighborhoods than they have in years. A majority of Americans polled also said they oppose programs that use public money for private and religious school education, policies that are supported by President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. And a majority said they do not think that standardized test scores—which have been used for more than a dozen years as the most important factor in evaluating schools—are a valid reflection of school quality.

Actually, it would be nice to think that these poll results have nothing to do with the President, but reflect a growing awareness that when it comes to “choice,” the alternatives to the traditional neighborhood schools that built our nation, nothing is simple, free, or without serious consequences for the health of our communities.

I come by my unwavering support for public schools (as well as my clear-eyed recognition that public education is now deeply flawed) honestly. My parents were huge public school boosters. When I was a toddler, they moved to new, post-war housing at the edge of town, an area not yet served by a junior high or high school. By the time I was in 7th grade, that school had been built, by people like my folks who repeatedly canvassed the working-class neighborhood urging people to tax themselves so we could have our own school.

My mom was president of the PTA—and won an award for establishing a scholarship fund for students who wanted to go to college, something she never had the opportunity to do. My dad dropped out of school at 16, but was a Band Booster officer, and ran back and forth on the sidelines every Friday night, resetting the chains, at my brother’s football games. They admired my teachers, and never missed school events.

Both of them could articulate their deep-seated belief in the necessity of good public schools. In fact, we were outliers in our extended family—my aunts and uncles sent my cousins to conservative Christian (not Catholic) schools, in western Michigan, where Betsy DeVos also went to Christian school with the children of other Dutch immigrants, like my family.

My grandparents would have paid the modest tuition—but my parents were firm: Public schools were non-exclusive. Everybody had a voice through the school board. Public education was the melting pot, where rich kids (not that there were a lot of rich kids in my school) rubbed elbows with working-class kids. Church was where you gave your children religious training. In school, by contrast, they met children of all backgrounds, colors and faiths. Their kids were going to public schools.

This is not merely a personal exercise in self-indulgent nostalgia. In spite of all the ways public education has failed American children over time—inequity of resources, unwillingness to reconsider outmoded practice, abandonment of the most needful children and their families—public education survives and still serves millions of children well. It truly is the only educational model where governing boards are still elected, communities are built, and nobody gets turned away.

Which is why I was so thrilled to read this piece: Civics, Community, and Allyship: Why We Chose Our Local Public School. If you only read one op-ed this busy weekend, make it this one, rather than wallowing in political sludge:

It is 72% Latino, 15% Asian/Filipino, 5% white, 5% black. It is 83% low-income. It is, and has been, historically ignored by the majority of affluent families and community members in our neighborhood. Year after year, it stands proud, despite the silent avoidance of many, a school desperately eager to serve the children of this community, regardless of their families' social and intellectual capital. Unless I am intentionally placing my children in diverse settings, both socio-economically and racially, unless I am intentionally acknowledging and addressing the issues of school segregation that have divided this great city, I will raise a racist. I won't mean to. But intentions are no longer enough. Unless I am forcibly putting her out in to the world, confident in her resilience, humanity, and grit, I will keep her cloistered and separate from the truth of what it really means to be an equal among equals. Because unless my children grow up with peers who come from different backgrounds, families, experiences, they will normalize their white privilege and when it comes time (sooner rather than later) to educate them about structural racism and classism and their part and responsibility to dismantle that system, they will have no context if the only thing they have seen is tokenism, poverty porn, and "model minorities."

Think about that—a school desperately eager to serve all the children of its surrounding community.

I hope—I desperately hope—that mothers like the author of this article, along with that majority of parents who expressed support for public education, represent a new vanguard. The young, civically engaged parents who want their children to re-create a more just and equitable world. Who are NOT operating on the principle of “it’s my money and you can’t have it” or “I don’t want my children to go to school with ‘them.’”

When it comes to education, we’ve certainly allowed all kinds of predators and vandals to chip away at America’s best idea: a completely free, high-quality public education for every child. No matter what they bring to the table.

Thanks to all the public schools and teachers standing eager to serve. Have a great year.

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The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land 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.