What is the importance of public education?
Many have and will continue to grapple over this question. It is one that is unlikely to be fully resolved due to the various political and philosophical agendas that drive the public conversation across many arenas. However, there are a few fundamental elements with which most would agree.
Public education is perhaps the single common and binding experience for Americans, albeit via different forms and experiences, with quality often dependent on a community’s commitment to its local schools. Much can be learned about a town’s values and priorities through the lens of its local school district.
Public education provides a foundation of common literacy in such areas as language, mathematics, the arts, and the natural and social sciences. In its current form, it also provides for opportunities that foster creativity, innovation, team work, and personal leadership – experiences that cannot be easily, if at all, measured. Unlike systems where rote memorization and knowledge-focused curricula drive hordes of students to a mythical finish line in order to excel on international assessments, American public schools have emphasized the importance of providing unique and individualized opportunities.
The American philosopher, John Dewey, argued that “Democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife.” If we believe that public education is for the common good and for ensuring that all Americans have equal opportunities to maximize their individual potential that will positively impact our society and culture, then we will also agree that supporting one’s public schools is to the mutual benefit of all, even those whose children have passed through the schools or those who have never had children attending.
An educated society – and again there are debates about exactly what should be included in a public education – is for the good of all who dwell in it. Individuals may personally benefit from a quality school experience, but it is the society that profits from a better informed citizenry and a highly skilled workforce. It is the society that prospers from its scientists, researchers, and engineers who have the preparation to innovate or problem solve, and leaders who are prepared to manage the complex problems of our time.
As the national debates over taxes, debt, school reform, the environment, and the responsibility of the individual versus society continue, there must be a consideration of the necessity for the shared experience of public education and the value that it brings to the common good and to the wealth of the nation – in economic, social, and spiritual currencies.