Monday, June 15, 2015

So What’s This Animus Against Public Education?

For those of us who grew up poor in the 1940s and 1950s the route to some sort of prosperity and success lay in small brick structures scattered around our communities and in larger complexes of brick structures in a few communities around our state. Of course I’m speaking of our public schools; K-12 schools housed in publicly financed buildings, taught by publicly paid teachers, and larger – and ever-growing – Teacher’s Colleges and Universities supported by a combination of tuition and public financing.

The movement toward public education began almost as soon as our forefathers completed construction of their first homes in the colonies that spread up and down the east coast of what is now the United States of America. In community after community, especially in the more populous northeast, schools were established for a variety of different reasons, some religious, some secular.

As the young nation shook off its colonial status and established itself under the Articles of Confederation it took possession of the Northwest Territory. Two important steps were taken immediately to assure an educated population. As surveyors plotted the land into six-mile-square townships they also subdivided it into mile-wide “squares”. The sixteenth “square”, roughly in the middle of each township was designated as property on which a public school would be built. Provision and encouragement for the establishment of a public university in each territory (soon to be a state) was also a part of the vision of our founders. Embedded in the Northwest Ordinance were the words, "Religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged."

Schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged. And it was at a school, not a lot different than those constructed on the sixteenth square of most townships throughout the budding Northwest Territory, that my sister, my brothers, my neighbors and I got our start toward a better life than that of our parents and grandparents. Further, it was with great pride that we watched the oldest son go off to a publicly financed university where he would be the first of our family to receive a college diploma from the University of Illinois no less.

But the story of our family is not unique. In the years from the end of World War II until today the vast majority of Americans have received their education in publicly financed institutions. In those schools the nation has brought together the varied ethnicities, economic classes, and culturally diverse populations that make us the rich nation that we are. Without that intermingling – imperfect to say the least, and not without serious problems – it is sobering, even frightening, to imagine the kind of society we might be. One needs only look at other areas of the world where a similar variety of ethnic, religious, regional, racial, and cultural diversity exists in volatile and deadly combination to understand what we could have become; what we yet could become if we allow our varied elements to drift apart into warring camps each raising its flag of religious, racial, ethnic or cultural privilege.

But there is a movement afoot to dismantle our system of public schools. Not just our K-12 public schools but our university system as well. The attack on public education comes in the form of weakening the structures that have built it into the educational model that much of the world turns to for inspiration.

At the K-12 level the primary focus is privatization accomplished through the establishment of for-profit charter schools and publicly funded private, often parochial, schools. If such schools were funded in addition to the adequate funding of fully public schools there might be some basis for justifying the expenditure of public money to “provide competition” for the public schools. But the opposite is happening; every dollar spent to support a private school diminishes the support for public education by the same amount. And instead of providing “academic competition” for public schools these publicly supported private schools are not held to the same standards as public schools; they are not made to “compete” but allowed, in many cases, to operate largely with no accountability for the funds invested in them.

And now, in the current budget being discussed in Madison, the University System is being asked to operate with 250 million fewer dollars than in the previous budget even though the previous budget also had significant reductions in funding. Additionally the Governor and the Legislature has, over the last several years, frozen tuition at state universities, forced university faculty to take unpaid days off, frozen their pay rates and forced then to pay more for their health insurance. And in the latest proposed injury to the system, tenure for university faculty is being eliminated from state law. (For the time being it is still retained by the University Board of Regents but it may only be a matter of time before that is wiped out too. Sixteen of the eighteen-member Board of Regents are appointed by the Governor.)

All of this is in addition to the outrage committed against all state worker’s unions (State Patrol and firemen’s unions excepted) by Act 10 which essentially stripped them of any meaningful bargaining rights. With the public employees unions eviscerated there was no significant force left to oppose the attack on public education outlined above. By gerrymandering legislative districts the Governor’s party has assured itself the dominance needed in the legislature to act with impunity as it dismantles a century of progress in public education. 

"Religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged."

 Could our Governor whose budget writing committee submitted, according to the Washington Post, “a budget proposal that included language that would have changed the century-old mission of the University of Wisconsin system . . . by removing words that commanded the university to “search for truth” and “improve the human condition” and replacing them with “meet the state’s workforce needs,” agree with the founders idea of the importance of our publicly supported educational system? He and his legislative comrades would choke on our founding fathers’ words. The governor and his legislative partners are determined to limit, not encourage, the kind of education our founders envisioned; an education that supports the essentials of “religion, morality, and knowledge” and replace it with welding classes to “meet the state’s workforce needs.” How sterile. How shortsighted. How destructive.

Welding classes we will always have with us but religion and morality must be cultivated or they will die out or morph into the deadly forces we see operating today in so many parts of the world. Welding classes will be demanded by our economy but universities exploring knowledge of our world can only survive if we value them enough to invest in them without knowing the economic benefits that will flow from them

We can only hope that future elections will bring to office men and women with clearer vision who understand that our publicly supported schools and universities form the basis of our democratic society. We can only hope that, here in Wisconsin, and around our nation, the people whose children are at risk of losing the right of a good education in a well-funded – publicly funded – school or university will wake up and vote out those who are attacking the very institutions that provide the hope of a better life for the poor and middle class youth of our day. It is such schools that help to assure that we will remain “One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice (opportunity) for all.”

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