He is the night clerk at a liquor store in Norman. While sacking my purchases of cabernet and pinot noir we fell into one of those easy conversations that grease the wheels of social intercourse in a small town. The talk meandered to the economy.
It turned out that he has a day job. He is a math teacher at a local High School. Not able to support his family doing the thing he loves, the thing he feels “called” to do, he spends his evenings stacking bottles of merlot and ringing up six packs.
When, I wondered, does he have the time to grade papers and plan lessons? For years, Oklahoma has ranked near the bottom in teacher salaries. Beginning teachers are routinely expected to be the bus driver and coach two or three sports teams in addition to teaching class.
It is clear that teaching is not a highly valued profession in our state, although it should be.
In what other profession would you find professionals spending up to $1,800 a year out of their own pocket just to buy school supplies for their students? In what other profession would you find people incurring decades’ worth of college debt and working two jobs, just for the privilege of spending ten hours a day in the classroom and another three or four at home preparing for the next day?
When we hear that one third of students graduating from rural schools are functionally illiterate, when we hear of falling test scores, and are informed that only one in seven Americans can find Iraq on a map, when we learn that most students can’t identify FDR in a photo or name a single Supreme Court Justice, the public has a right to ask some questions.
One that is seldom asked is, “How much time are parents spending helping their children with their homework?”
Teachers and the public school system become an easy target. But diverting resources from the public school system to commercial enterprises such as charter schools and private academies is really cynicism disguised as “choice.” It represents a further unraveling of the fabric of American democracy, which is already dangerously frayed and pulling apart at the seams.
Historically, there are precious few unifying forces in American society. We don’t believe in the same religion, we don’t have a common ethnic or racial background, and we don’t celebrate the same cultural traditions. We certainly don’t have the same politics.
What we do have is a shared language and the universal experience of the American public school system. The common curriculum of reading, writing, math, science, art, and civics transcends the diversity of Catholic, Protestant, Jew, Muslim, black, white, brown, male, female, or even class.
The school yard is the first place where we all learn that E Pluribus Unum is not simply a motto on a coin, but a living, breathing reality that each of us encounters every day.
We have little else to hold us together as a nation. Our schools have always provided a kind of social glue, binding us together with in a common experience, language, and even identity.
Slogans like “parental choice,” “school competition,” “secular humanism,” and “governmental monopoly” are little more than a slight-of-hand that has less to do with the quality of education than some perceived culture war, seeking to redefine America along racial, ideological, economic, and even theological lines.
Recently a state legislator told me in confidence that he was dismayed when an acquaintance told him that he couldn’t support a school bond because the “government schools don’t teach Jesus as Lord.” And last week my barber expressed her dissatisfaction with the school’s “time out” approach to discipline problems as “unbiblical.”
My sense is that the various “faith based” academies of today intend a very different purpose than the old parochial schools of my youth, which had as their purpose the integration of immigrants into American society. Today’s private academies seem pretty explicit about insulating and fostering a sense of separateness from the larger community.
Indoctrination is not the same thing as education. Having a deeply held view is fine. But I don’t believe that the State should hijack my tax dollars to subsidize someone else’s religious world view.
Free public education is one of the greatest gifts this country has to offer. A gift only dreamed of in many parts of the world. If there are problems, fix them.
And remember that the value of America’s public schools reaches far beyond simply “Reading, Writing, and R’ithmatic.”
“Students in Stephanie Gragg’s English class prepare for a test at Midwest City High School,” by Brent Fuchs, The Journal Record (4/6/2016).