March 12, 2018

Celebrating Secular Public Education

A classroom with teacher and studentsAmericans United for Separation of Church and State reminds us that this is Public Schools Week, a perfect opportunity to express support for our public schools and our public school teachers. I think that most atheists would agree that secular public education is important, but we need to do more to defend it, promote it, and yes, even celebrate it.

The state where I grew up had a somewhat unusual system for funding public schools. At least, it was different from anything I've experienced in the other states in which I've lived since then. Essentially, funding for public schools was an item on the ballot during many elections. Depending on how the vote turned out, schools would receive needed funds (usually through a bond issue) or not. If they did not, cuts would often take place. And sadly, this was often the outcome.

There seemed to be a real disconnect in that most of the parents who had children in public school voted to fund the schools while many others did not. I found it sad that so many of the non-parents didn't seem to understand how the presence of better-educated children benefitted them. I remember that the editorial page of the local newspaper was often filled with angry letters arguing about how "I shouldn't have to pay for your kid's education" and other nonsense. The authors of these letters failed to understand that we all benefit from quality public education.

Another unfortunate aspect of this system of funding public schools was the uncertainty it brought. Because schools had no way of knowing how voters were going to respond, it was almost impossible for their administrators to make informed decisions about how to allocate funds. Things were too unpredictable to allow for smart budgeting.

I can recall a couple of teacher strikes taking place but only one that lasted long enough to be a big deal. I do not recall how long it closed school, but I think it was at least a week or two. We students supported the teachers and not just because we wanted to get out of school for awhile. We recognized that they were underpaid and undervalued. We did not understand why this was the case. Were we so unimportant to the adults in the community that they placed this little value on our education and those responsible for it?

I've always been proud to be a product of public school. I know it doesn't work for everyone, and I won't pretend it is perfect; however, it worked for me. Some of my teachers were better than others, but I learned something valuable from nearly all of them. I'm aware of the criticism that public education does little more than attempt to suppress creativity and push conformity, but this was not my experience at all. I had some fantastic teachers who encouraged me to think critically, question authority, and pursue knowledge. I credit them with helping to shape the person I'd become.

We do not do nearly enough to support secular public education, and I'd like to see that change. The pervasive lack of funding is clearly a problem, but I'd also point to the broader ways in which we do not adequately value our public school teachers. There's been too much talk lately about arming them with guns, and I'd like to see far more of a focus on equipping them with the resources they need to do their jobs and the support and encouragement that tells them we value their many contributions.