Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Our Public Education System: Cornerstone of American Democracy (by Mark Shalius)

Wide-spread publicly funded education in the United States began in the mid 1800s as a response to economic inequality. Horace Mann, the so-called "father of the Common Schools movement" worried that his state of Massachusetts was, "exposed, far beyond any other State in the Union, to the fatal extremes of overgrown wealth and desperate poverty." He advocated public education because "it gives each man the independence and the means by which he can resist the selfishness of other men . . . it prevents being poor." Henry Barnard, another 19th century American responsible for the adoption of public education throughout the US, described it as, "The cause of true education, of the complete education of every human being without regard to the accidents of birth or fortune."

Although our publicly controlled system has not functioned perfectly and has sometimes been subject to abuse, Americans have supported it in principle because it preserves and protects fundamental American values of equality, democracy, freedom and individuality. By preventing poverty, it mitigates the extremes of inequality that can destroy a society. It is fundamentally democratic (controlled by everyone together). It creates an informed citizenry that is the bedrock of our democracy. It keeps us free by emphasizing the well-being and rights of individual citizens, not large organizations. Public colleges, in particular, keep us free by monitoring and limiting undue influence of large powerful entities in society: corporations, government, etc. Americans recognize that education is a fundamental right - the basis for many other human rights. And public schools are the major American institution where people from all walks of life come together to imagine and create a shared future that works for everyone.

A healthy public education system also provides the best quality education. Finland's well-funded public school system is widely regarded as the best in the world right now. And the American public education system used to be much better. But as is discussed in detail in the companion essays, during the past several decades, corporations in America have mounted a systematic, organized attack to destroy our public education system and replace it with a privatized one. As a result, we now have an unhealthy public school system, choked by massive funding cuts that finance corporate tax breaks and subverted by corporate-influenced management that ignores our fundamental American values. Ironically, corporate education privatizers claim that these very shortcomings they have forced upon our public system justify its replacement by a corporate/private system of education - a system that will deny public control to the citizens who are paying for it. This is an attempt to impose taxation without representation, which is as unAmerican today as it was when Americans first revolted against it during the Revolutionary War that created this nation. Privatized corporate education is also unAmerican because it replaces our fundamental American values of equality, freedom, democracy and individuality with the single corporate value of profit. Most studies do not support corporate privatizers' claims of providing "better quality" education than a public system.

19th century Americans originally created a publicly funded, publicly controlled education system to reduce economic inequalities. They saw this as a patriotic action to preserve our values and protect our nation from the threat of "fatal extremes of overgrown wealth and desperate poverty." So as public funding and control of education have declined under corporate attack in the 21st century, the corresponding increase in economic inequality should come as no surprise to us. Undoing our 150 year-old tradition of strong public education risks returning us to the economic misery and chaotic social conditions of the early 1800s. Americans understand that we are headed toward these "fatal extremes" as economic conditions continue to worsen for most of us while the top one percent becomes increasingly wealthy. Americans have a long tradition of reducing this threat of "fatal extremes" through public education. To reverse this trend, we must return to our American roots of public education. We MUST strengthen public funding and public control of education to re-create a healthy and robust public education system. Our American predecessors had it right: a healthy public education system is one of the fundamental cornerstones of our nation. Removing it will destroy this country.

The following compilation contains pieces by concerned American students, parents, and faculty. Some explain in detail how corporate privatization attacks on our public education system are subverting our basic American values. Others suggest strategies for thwarting these attacks and re-creating a healthy, vigorous public education system that is genuinely of the people, by the people and for the people.

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