Despite what may seem to be an over-emphasis on testing that has riddled public education in America, I continue to believe strongly in the power of public education. Of late, it seems, some politicians—along with members of the general public—seek to devalue public education and the power of intellect. For instance, the current U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos—who possesses no valid education credentials, often discounts public education.
I hold with our founding fathers, who believed strongly in public education and the importance of using that tool to empower the public. Thomas Jefferson, the third U.S. president, whose 2,000 volumes of books helped forge the foundation for the Library of Congress, said, “I think by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowlege among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom, and happiness.” That “diffusion of knowledge” among a diverse sector of the public is a primary tenet of public education.
So what are the specific advantages that favor public education? Public educators, first of all, are, overall, better prepared than other teachers. According to 2012 statistics promulgated by the National Center for Education Statistics, 56 percent of public school teachers held master’s degrees, versus the 43 percent of private school instructors who had master’s degrees.
Public education, ideally, epitomizes the democratic process at multiple levels: federal, state, and local. At the top level of the hierarchy, policymakers are chosen through the election of state and congressional representatives. Yet, public education also involves a wide range of input at the community level. School boards are the local decision-makers for a public school district. Parents and the general public should also have input, as they have open access to information and can choose to be involved in school activities. In the end, students become learners in a diverse society that involves a multiplicity of ways of thinking.
There is, perhaps, then, the greatest sense of equality automatically embedded into the public education system. Public schools enroll all students, and no limitations are supposed to be based on race, gender, socioeconomic status, disability, or ethnicity. In America, a student does not even have to speak English in order to have his or her educational needs met. Education, therefore, becomes one of the greatest equalizers in American society.
Furthermore, public schools safeguard the quality of the education they provide by following specified, consistent standards to guide curriculum. The shift to Common Core State Standards, which were developed at state levels and implemented within the last half-decade, has been a boon to public education in America. Many states have revised slightly the language of those nationally consistent standards, but overall, they remain mostly the same—with valid reason.
In the English classes that I teach in Tennessee, for example, there is no justification for students to learn something drastically different than what students in New York or California are learning. In order to be globally competitive, they all need to know how to construct and deconstruct arguments, how to sift through complex informational texts, and how to navigate the literary components of a well-crafted narrative.
Ultimately, the sense of community—with whatever diversity it may have to offer—is integral to the success of public education in America. As humorist Garrison Keillor writes, “[My family] believed in the public school because they believed in a community. They believed the important thing was what was in your head. My grandmother was a schoolteacher. She taught in a one-room country school north of Anoka, Minnesota, and my grandmother had a certain contempt for people who made a great show and were not that bright. My grandmother said, 'Don't be a 10-dollar haircut on a 25-cent head.' You avoided that by going to school and paying attention. You became a worthwhile person and a member of the community."
That culmination of being a worthwhile and viable citizen of the community is the essence of what I, as a public educator, would hope for all of my students.
(Daily Corinthian columnist Stacy Jones teaches English at McNairy Central High School and UT Martin and is a consultant for the Tennessee Department of Education. She enjoys being a downtown Corinth resident.)