Public education faces a frightening array of external enemies. Perennial underfunding is an obvious one. Politics is another, with special-interest groups and political factions working overtime to weaponize educational issues. For-profit interests lurk permanently outside the collective schoolhouse door, viewing individual students as data points, and specific student populations as high-value target markets. Privatization threatens the social contract that sustains the goal of high-quality public education for all children.
And what do many of us in the public education trenches do about those threats?
We fight with each other.
I have been involved, in one way or another, with education for more than two decades, and I have never seen the level of polarization and anger within the education community that I see right now. The match-ups rival those of the NFL’s fall schedule — charter schools versus traditional public schools; county vocational-technical schools versus vocational programs in traditional high schools; suburban schools versus urban schools; districts losing adjustment aid versus districts gaining adjustment aid; boards versus superintendents; boards versus local teachers unions; board members versus other board members; groups that favor standardized testing versus those that do not.
Most of those disputes come down to resources, especially funding. Perceived, threatened or actual loss of funding has frayed the fabric of the New Jersey public education establishment, especially in the years since the 2008 economic crash. Now the rhetoric and tension have reached fever pitch and seem likely to remain there. This has resulted in the loss of some of the brightest educators in New Jersey, who walked away because they were tired of the endless struggle — of fighting the rancor, the politics and the bureaucracy that impede real education. The loss of those educators diminishes our communities and the prospects for our children.
All guilty in one way or another
In education right now, as in other areas, our differences are exacerbated by the fact that anger seems to be in the air we all breathe. Civility in public discourse is hard to come by and people of all political persuasions feel free to unleash millions of tweets’ worth of the most savage, hurtful and vitriolic comments and opinions, without regard to the consequences.
We are all guilty in one way or another, and we are modeling terrible behavior for our children.
We need healing in the education space, here in New Jersey and nationally. We can start by remembering one phrase: “for the kids.” It should be a point of commonality. Everyone says they are “for the kids,” but too often the “kids” in question are limited to a specific group or constituency.
If you work anywhere near education and don’t work for every child in New Jersey, you are in the wrong business.
Some of the combatants in New Jersey education consistently claim a higher moral ground on behalf of the groups they represent. In funding discussions, we often talk of districts that deserve or don’t deserve additional funding. If we keep arguing about who deserves the most, we will forget the only moral imperative that really matters. Every child deserves the best, whether that “best” is funding, facilities, time or teachers. Conversely, there is no child in New Jersey who deserves less than the full measure of available resources.
Resources will always be finite, and if we continue to waste them on disputes, there will never be enough to go around. To be “for the kids” and make the best use of resources, we have to come together with sincerity, intelligence and generosity.
Less of the ‘red-hot rhetoric’
Coming together means listening to and learning from people with opposing viewpoints. This is a tall order for individuals and groups that have made a major investment in red-hot rhetoric, but it is essential. Anger and hubris are the enemies of intelligent discussion and limit the flexibility that is integral to finding workable solutions to the problems that educators and students face daily.
Every one of us who cares about kids has an obligation to study and understand all sides of education-related issues. We also need to practice more of the critical thinking skills that we are trying to teach our children.
As we start the new school year, the threats to public education loom large, and we all have a lot to talk about. Whether we are debating the assessment question or trying to protect students without hamstringing educators, we need to let something other than rancor guide us. We need to remember why we are here — for the kids — and act on common goals with common humanity.
Our children are waiting and, even more important, watching.