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Saving Public Education: A Grizzly Affair

Who will stand up against the bear?

By Larry Jacobs

Empty classroomWriting this on January 19, I cannot help but note that next week is National School Choice Week. When they work, I love the idea of charter schools. In case you forgot, charter schools are public schools, but the money follows the child to that school. That’s one of the reasons I added “when they work.” I dislike school vouchers, btw, because the money leaves public education.

Which brings me to President Trump’s choice for Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos. She is a firm believer in school choice of all kinds. While I honestly believe that she believes that she’s doing the right thing, she has never been strong on the accountability side of school choice success. That’s OK, she can still be Secretary. We can agree to disagree. After all elections have results. She’s is one of the results and I believe in the executive’s right to pick his or her cabinet.

That said, I still worry.

Old time drawing of a pioneer man and his dogs fighting off a grizzly bearShe threw me off when the committee quizzed her about guns in schools. Her answer was (to paraphrase) “What if a school in Wyoming is attacked by a Grizzly Bear. They’ll need a gun to protect the kids.” Logical, but you could say the same thing about Zombies attacking.

I actually looked up “Grizzly Bear Attacks on Schools” and it turns out there haven’t been any. In fact, experts recommend that sprays and fences are the best way to protect against a bear intrusion, which again has never happened at a school. It’s “bear arms,” Mrs. Devos, not “arm bears.” And that brings me back to accountability. If she can be so wrong on the issue of guns in schools with that abominable answer, is public education safe in her hands. The conclusions need to be based on reality, not expedience.

There’s a great line of dialogue at the end of the absurdly excellent movie “The Bridges at Toko Ri,” a Korean War movie about valiant airmen in that war. As Frederick March learns about the death of pilot William Holden, he laments aloud as he watches planes take off from his carrier, “Where do we get such men?”

Where have we always gotten such people to fight for all of us? Simple, they are us… and now ‘us’ needs to fight for public education.

With President Trump nominating Betsy DeVos, public education will need heroes of its own because public education was designed to be the protector of democracy. Why?  Because as Sy Syms used to say on his TV ads, ads that were well listened to by our Founding Fathers who obviously bought their breeches at his store, “An educated consumer is our best customer.” The product I’m talking about is Democracy and the Founding Fathers knew how important public education was to it, and we owe it to them not to forget!

Reflection of the sky in a mirror on the groundWhere do we get such people to protect public education? We look in a mirror. It’s our job to protect it and get the word out. Some are doing it on a daily basis like Miranda Beard, the President of the National School Boards Association who, in her spare time is also President of the Laurel, Mississippi School Board and serves on the Mississippi State Board as well. And as she likes to say, it all boils down to equity for all students and how school boards are, in fact, the will of the people.

But the people need to be kept informed and, by the people, I am not just referring to parents. I am referring to all community stakeholders… business, industry and the folks in the community who don’t have kids in school, not including Grizzly Bears. Ask any realtor and they’ll tell you that first question clients ask is “How are the schools?” because schools determine real estate value. In almost every community across the nation, the school district is the largest employer. The community must understand and be involved in public education. Educators must get the success stories out there to ensure that the public understands what’s going on and how their tax dollars are making the community viable now and forever, and make sure we don’t waste one kid anywhere, due to inequity.

The cost of losing public education is one we’ll pay for a long, long time. Like Fram Oil Filters used to say, “You can pay me now or pay me later!”

We all have to stand up for public education, with all its perceived failings – and there are some failings. For example, graduation rates are at their highest point in a long time. However, that can be deceiving because there are some graduating 12th graders, reading at a 4th grade level, who believe they are college ready as we push them through the system.  Ask college professors, like my friend Amelia Gamel who wrote a book called, frighteningly, “Help, My College Students Can’t Read.” 

That’s bad. And FYI, those are our kids we are doing that to – our kids – because we are all in the same village from sea to shining sea. You may not like all the neighbors, but it is still up to us to keep the Grizzly from the door.

Public Latin SchoolBecause of stories like the one above, there is a perception that public education is not working. That is simply not true and that perception is killing public education. Vice President Pence, when asked about “Community Policing” in the Vice-Presidential debate, started off his answer with this throw-away line, “Well, we all know our schools are failing.” No, they aren’t. Most are doing fine, and the ones that aren’t need to be turned around because none of us should be able to accept students graduating 12th grade while reading at a 4th grade level. We need to stand up and realize we’re all in this together. That’s not a school failure…that’s our failure!

Where do we get such people to stand up for public education? I’ll tell you where. Buy a mirror. Fortunately, the “Mirandas” of the world are everywhere and we all have to get the word out. Do you want to sell your house? Do you want new industry in your community? Good schools bring it all together.

If we don’t get the word out, public education will suffer. And public education is a bulwark of democracy.

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