Friday, September 14, 2012

Back to school: Why public education is awesome

Published: Saturday, September 01, 2012, 9:00 AM     Updated: Tuesday, September 04, 2012, 12:01 PM

Students by the busload
KALAMAZOO, MI -- Years ago, I interviewed a man who adopted a teenage boy from Central America. The boy had to adjust to life in Michigan, which included dealing with winters and going to a school where very few people spoke his language.

But surprisingly, the teen had boundless enthusiasm for the latter. In his home country, educational options were very limited for poor children. The child could hardly believe his good fortune is being able to attend a high school for free, a school that offered a broad curriculum and even provided the textbooks. What a privilege! What an opportunity! What a country!

American public education gets plenty of negative ink these days. It's regularly disparaged as a system mired in mediocrity and plagued by the chronic underachievement of poor and minority schoolchildren. There's plenty of angst over college-readiness rates, dropout numbers, America's academic achievement compared to other countries.

Those are all legitimate concerns.
And yet.

As we launch into another school year, perhaps we should take a minute to celebrate the importance and accomplishments of public education as a cornerstone of American democracy.

From the nation's start, it was understood that a government for the people, of the people, by the people required a literate, well-informed citizenry. When Congress enacted the Northwest Ordinance in 1787 to govern Michigan and other Midwest territories, it included a provision that each township had to set aside a lot for a school. As the West was settled, establishment of an education system was one of the requirements for statehood.

The United States didn't invent publicly funded education, although New England was among the first regions in the world to develop such a system. But one of America's gifts to the world has been the democratization of schools, especially secondary and higher education.
Although there have been significant failures along the way -- most notably in the form of racial segregation -- the United States has been a pioneer in educating every kid who walks in the door, and in promoting the ideal that every student should have access to the complete range of academic opportunities.

Over the years, public education has served a variety of vital functions. It's been the primary way to instill core civic values and a common culture in a nation of immigrants. It's played a central role in America's transformation from an agrarian to industrial and than a post-industrial society. It helped turn the U.S. into the most powerful country in the world, fueling the American Dream and the vision of a Land of Opportunity.

Today, the many benefits of public education are more important than ever, both for individuals and communities as a whole. A well-educated populace has more productive workers, higher incomes and less dependence on public-assistance programs. It's linked to lower crime rates, improved public health, more stable families.

Moreover, public schools are the heart and soul of many American towns, the core of local DNA. And because public schools are so strongly part and parcel of their community, they tend to reflect and even reinforce the strengths and weaknesses of the people they serve. It's no coincidence that healthy, flourishing communities tend to have vibrant school systems, while communities in decline have schools that struggle.

No question, American public education remains a work in progress. But it also is the government institution that most consistently changes lives for the better.

This week, school starts for 1.5 million Michigan public schoolchildren. For some, this will be the year they will read a book for the first time, or finally understand algebra, or fall in love with history or biology. This will be the year some children will  discover a hidden talent in music or writing or math, and their lives will never be the same. This will be the year that at least a few failing students will pull it together, shock everybody, and go on to great academic success.

Even in other countries with universal public education, those scenarios might not be possible because of a system that sorts and selects, limiting options for many children.

But in America, public education will take you as far as you want to go.

What a privilege. What an opportunity. What a country.

This opinion column was written by Julie Mack for the Kalamazoo Gazette. Contact her or 269-350-0277, or follow her on Twitter at all posts by Julie Mack, click here.

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