Public Education: America's Great Equalizer

WHAT'S RIGHT WITH AMERICA?

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Editor's note: The following column is the third in an eight-part series about "What's right with America" that will appear in the pages of the Roundup through July 4. The author, Stan Brown, is a local historian, a columnist for the Rim Review and a retired minister. This series reflects his take on the implications of freedom in America.

What's right about America? The freedom to receive a public education.

I walked across the stage at Sutherland Elementary School and received my eighth-grade diploma from the principal, Miss Jenkinson. So did 30 others, including the girl who would later become my wife.

Most of the members of that class are still named in my mind. We were from every walk of life and economic status. We all had different kinds of abilities, and something special had happened among us as we spent the major part of those eight years together. Many of us went on to high school together, and later were in each other's wedding parties.

There is a glow from those days, which still shines across the years.

When I walked across that stage and received that diploma, I knew I was somebody. Even though I have had a number of graduations and diplomas since then, there never was a time to compare with the joy of that first graduation from public school.

The week my wife, Ruth, and I explored our nation's capitol, it was filled with elementary, middle school and high school students from around the country.

They seemed as inspired as we were, orderly in their queues and relatively quiet inside the buildings. As they marched along Pennsylvania Avenue, heading for their next event, it poured rain. Their identical red slickers looked like a low line of fire against the backdrop of the White House. What child who gets to visit D.C. will ever forget the inspiration of that mystical place?

I believe in America's public schools. Liberty and the pursuit of happiness are inseparable from education, and public education is not only the greatest equalizer in America, but also the great opportunity that must be equal for all.

Many of us are disturbed by the troubles in our public schools. We hardly blame teachers for giving up their profession in the face of disrespectful children. We understand when some parents seek alternative schooling for their sons and daughters.

Complaining and withdrawing support, voting down bond issues or sending children to private schools not only undermines this fundamental American institution, but might be considered un-American.

During my career as a pastor, I came under pressure from time to time to develop a private Christian school at our church, or to join forces with others who sponsored such schools. This presented a great dilemma for me. I always came down on the side of the public schools. I felt I should be investing my time, not in competing with the public schools, but in volunteering in them, pressing campaigns for increased teachers' salaries and lobbying for more tax support.

For all the problems in today's public schools, I contend that a reasonably educated citizenry is more important for democracy than a highly educated elite.

America will be greater as we push to raise the whole level of public education, but America will be weaker if we do not raise it for everyone together.

We must restore the teaching of values in our schools. I'm not saying that we should institute parochial religion, but that we should re-institute civic religion.

The old requirements are still the core of public education: homework, attendance, dedicated teachers and discipline.

Walking across that stage for my eighth-grade diploma was a high moment, when I felt good about myself. I held my head ever so high. It was the beginning of a long quest for knowledge, which has opened up all kinds of other joys and rewards, including the ability to converse with folks from different disciplines than mine. A liberal education gives one enough familiarity to at least ask the right questions.

As Americans, we have something unique and precious in our public education. The freedom to experience it must be every person's opportunity. That is what makes America right.

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