I am a proud product of public schooling. I learned how to read in public schools. I was encouraged to explore the world around me, find books that I loved and learn about a variety of different people and cultures.
I still have memories of elementary school reading contests, learning about The Beatles in music class, watching Tom Sawyer plays (and being called Becky Thatcher), kindergarten naptime on my rug, the birds of prey visiting from the University of Minnesota, learning math tricks and doing science experiments; playing touch football and four square during outdoor recess, and always being excited to go to school.
My public schooling adventure continued as I went to junior high and high school. I was encouraged by Mr. Olson, my science teacher, to continue my love of writing and reading. He would suggest books for me and motivate us in the physics classroom by playing guitar to teach about sound waves. I was introduced to authors I would not have found on my own. I even remember my senior research project where I researched and wrote about the Parents’ Music Resource Center (PMRC) and music censorship.
Without my public school education, I would never have gone on to college or graduate school. My graduate schools, both my Masters and PhD, were in public institutions. I taught high school and summer programs in public schools in Minnesota and Philadelphia. Now, I teach at a public university. My life is the way it is because of my relationship with public schools.
I am proud that my children will be products of public schooling as well. Public school teachers are some of the hardest workers I know. I trust my children’s teachers with their educational livelihood. I trust them to engage my children in critical thinking, learning, and becoming active citizens and participants in our society. We work at home to support our children’s schooling experiences, but I also believe in what public school teachers are doing.
Yet, with the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as the Secretary of Education, the fate of public schools and public education is in jeopardy in ways that it has not been in the recent past. The rhetoric around public schools and public education is one that continues to say that public schools are failing our students; this is nowhere near the truth.
If Secretary DeVos has her way, she will push to divest funds in public education under the guise of more parental choice. Historically we have seen what this means. When all public schools are not funded, or, threatened with removal of funding, this means that schools may choose to deny students an education. Historically, we have done this with African American students, immigrant students, Asian American students, students with disabilities, Latino students, female students, and other marginalized groups.
When we tell states they do not need to comply with federal laws like the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), we run the risk of states, districts, and schools denying education to whole groups of students. For example, the voucher program which Ms. DeVos praises requires families to give up their special education due-process rights that are guaranteed under the IDEA law. Doing so leaves families with children with disabilities limited options.
And what does school choice in the form of vouchers and charter schools mean for rural communities such as ours? According to the National Center for Education Statistics, nationally there are 7.5% of charter school students living in rural communities. The majority, about 57%, live in urban areas. With school choice, fewer students enrolled in a school means less funds the school receives. Districts who lose students, lose money. This happens no matter why a student leaves.
If someone moves out of the school, tax money is removed. Resources for rural schools with a small number of students will become even more of a struggle. Even with less students, in order to be a viable school, rural schools and districts must offer a larger number of programs. In addition, using a voucher to go to a private or charter school does not pay for full tuition, and in many cases, does not even cover half the tuition for the school year.
Imagine if your school or district loses funding and need to cut programs. Academic programs, athletic programs, teachers, and services. What will this mean for our rural communities that are already stretched too thin? Advanced college placement courses or other programs with a small number of students could disappear. Athletic programs that cost too much to continue will be eliminated. And, in districts where students were getting a strong education, and going on to public (and sometimes private) colleges and universities, this would not be as possible without the teachers and programs we have now—or the opportunities to create new ones.
I believe in our teachers. I believe that public school teachers care about students and have their best interests in mind. I find it hard when we have put an individual in charge of education who has never attended a public school, whose children have not attended a public school, and who has no background and experience in teaching and teacher education. I don’t believe that our teachers believe in one-size fits all education. I believe that they work with students and create classrooms that engage students in learning and schooling.
Created to help promote a democratic society, public schools play an integral role in American democracy. In order to stay true to the purposes of public schools, public education needs public support and public participation. Students need safe buildings, well-prepared staff, and reliable materials. This cannot happen if we remove funding from our public schools. It also cannot happen if our communities take public schooling and public education for granted. As a community, we need to stand up and support our public schools and public school teachers. Let your representatives know that you want to continue to support and fund public schools and public education for our children.
Rebekah Buchanan is an Assistant Professor of English at Western Illinois University.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcome and encouraged.